Working with sensor locations

This tutorial describes how to read and plot sensor locations, and how the physical location of sensors is handled in MNE-Python.

As usual we’ll start by importing the modules we need and loading some example data:

import os
import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D  # noqa
import mne

sample_data_folder = mne.datasets.sample.data_path()
sample_data_raw_file = os.path.join(sample_data_folder, 'MEG', 'sample',
raw =, preload=True, verbose=False)

About montages and layouts

MNE-Python comes pre-loaded with information about the sensor positions of many MEG and EEG systems. This information is stored in layout files and montages. Layouts give sensor positions in 2 dimensions (defined by x, y, width, and height values for each sensor), and are primarily used for illustrative purposes (i.e., making diagrams of approximate sensor positions in top-down diagrams of the head). In contrast, montages contain sensor positions in 3D (x, y, z, in meters). Many layout and montage files are included during MNE-Python installation, and are stored in your mne-python directory, in the mne/channels/data/layouts and mne/channels/data/montages folders, respectively:

data_dir = os.path.join(os.path.dirname(mne.__file__), 'channels', 'data')
for subfolder in ['layouts', 'montages']:
    print('\nBUILT-IN {} FILES'.format(subfolder[:-1].upper()))
    print(sorted(os.listdir(os.path.join(data_dir, subfolder))))


['CTF-275.lout', 'CTF151.lay', 'CTF275.lay', 'EEG1005.lay', 'EGI256.lout', 'KIT-125.lout', 'KIT-157.lout', 'KIT-160.lay', 'KIT-AD.lout', 'KIT-AS-2008.lout', 'KIT-UMD-3.lout', 'Neuromag_122.lout', 'Vectorview-all.lout', 'Vectorview-grad.lout', 'Vectorview-grad_norm.lout', 'Vectorview-mag.lout', 'biosemi.lay', 'magnesWH3600.lout']

['EGI_256.csd', 'GSN-HydroCel-128.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-129.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-256.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-257.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-32.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-64_1.0.sfp', 'GSN-HydroCel-65_1.0.sfp', 'biosemi128.txt', 'biosemi16.txt', 'biosemi160.txt', 'biosemi256.txt', 'biosemi32.txt', 'biosemi64.txt', 'easycap-M1.txt', 'easycap-M10.txt', 'mgh60.elc', 'mgh70.elc', 'standard_1005.elc', 'standard_1020.elc', 'standard_alphabetic.elc', 'standard_postfixed.elc', 'standard_prefixed.elc', 'standard_primed.elc']

As you may be able to tell from the filenames shown above, the included montage files are all for EEG systems. These are idealized sensor positions based on a spherical head model. Montage files for MEG systems are not provided because the 3D coordinates of MEG sensors are included in the raw recordings from MEG systems, and are automatically stored in the info attribute of the Raw file upon loading. In contrast, layout files are included for MEG systems (to facilitate easy plotting of MEG sensor location diagrams).

You may also have noticed that the file formats and filename extensions of layout and montage files vary considerably. This reflects different manufacturers’ conventions; to simplify this, the montage and layout loading functions in MNE-Python take the filename without its extension so you don’t have to keep track of which file format is used by which manufacturer. Examples of this can be seen in the following sections.

If you have digitized the locations of EEG sensors on the scalp during your recording session (e.g., with a Polhemus Fastrak digitizer), these can be loaded in MNE-Python as DigMontage objects; see Reading sensor digitization files (below).

Working with layout files

To load a layout file, use the mne.channels.read_layout() function, and provide the filename without its file extension. You can then visualize the layout using its plot() method, or (equivalently) by passing it to mne.viz.plot_layout():

biosemi_layout = mne.channels.read_layout('biosemi')
biosemi_layout.plot()  # same result as: mne.viz.plot_layout(biosemi_layout)

Similar to the picks argument for selecting channels from Raw objects, the plot() method of Layout objects also has a picks argument. However, because layouts only contain information about sensor name and location (not sensor type), the plot() method only allows picking channels by index (not by name or by type). Here we find the indices we want using numpy.where(); selection by name or type is possible via mne.pick_channels() or mne.pick_types().

midline = np.where([name.endswith('z') for name in biosemi_layout.names])[0]

If you’re working with a Raw object that already has sensor positions incorporated, you can create a Layout object with either the mne.channels.make_eeg_layout() function or (equivalently) the mne.channels.find_layout() function.

layout_from_raw = mne.channels.make_eeg_layout(
# same result as: mne.channels.find_layout(, ch_type='eeg')


There is no corresponding make_meg_layout function because sensor locations are fixed in a MEG system (unlike in EEG, where the sensor caps deform to fit each subject’s head). Thus MEG layouts are consistent for a given system and you can simply load them with mne.channels.read_layout(), or use mne.channels.find_layout() with the ch_type parameter, as shown above for EEG.

All Layout objects have a save() method that allows writing layouts to disk, in either .lout or .lay format (which format gets written is inferred from the file extension you pass to the method’s fname parameter). The choice between .lout and .lay format only matters if you need to load the layout file in some other software (MNE-Python can read either format equally well).

Working with montage files

Built-in montages are loaded and plotted in a very similar way to layouts. However, the plot() method of DigMontage objects has some additional parameters, such as whether to display channel names or just points (the show_names parameter) and whether to display sensor positions in 3D or as a 2D topomap (the kind parameter):

ten_twenty_montage = mne.channels.make_standard_montage('standard_1020')
fig = ten_twenty_montage.plot(kind='3d')
fig.gca().view_init(azim=70, elev=15)
  • ../../_images/sphx_glr_plot_40_sensor_locations_004.png
  • ../../_images/sphx_glr_plot_40_sensor_locations_005.png


4 duplicate electrode labels found:
T7/T3, T8/T4, P7/T5, P8/T6
Plotting 90 unique labels.
4 duplicate electrode labels found:
T7/T3, T8/T4, P7/T5, P8/T6
Plotting 90 unique labels.

Similar functionality is also available with the plot_sensors() method of Raw objects, again with the option to plot in either 2D or 3D. plot_sensors() also allows channel selection by type, can color-code channels in various ways (by default, channels listed in['bads'] will be plotted in red), and allows drawing into an existing matplotlib axes object (so the channel positions can easily be made as a subplot in a multi-panel figure):

fig = plt.figure()
ax2d = fig.add_subplot(121)
ax3d = fig.add_subplot(122, projection='3d')
raw.plot_sensors(ch_type='eeg', axes=ax2d)
raw.plot_sensors(ch_type='eeg', axes=ax3d, kind='3d')
ax3d.view_init(azim=70, elev=15)

Reading sensor digitization files

It’s probably evident from the 2D topomap above that there is some irregularity in the EEG sensor positions in the sample dataset — this is because the sensor positions in that dataset are digitizations of the sensor positions on an actual subject’s head. Depending on what system was used to scan the positions one can use different reading functions (mne.channels.read_dig_captrack() for a CapTrak Brain Products system, mne.channels.read_dig_egi() for an EGI system, mne.channels.read_dig_polhemus_isotrak() for Polhemus ISOTRAK, mne.channels.read_dig_fif() to read from a fif file or mne.channels.read_dig_hpts() to read MNE hpts files. The read montage can then be added to Raw objects with the set_montage() method; in the sample data this was done prior to saving the Raw object to disk, so the sensor positions are already incorporated into the info attribute of the Raw object. See the documentation of the reading functions and set_montage() for further details. Once loaded, locations can be plotted with plot() and saved with save(), like when working with a standard montage.

The possibilities to read in digitized montage files are summarized in Supported formats for digitized 3D locations.


When setting a montage with set_montage() the measurement info is updated at two places (the chs and dig entries are updated). See The Info data structure. dig will potentially contain more than channel locations, such HPI, head shape points or fiducials 3D coordinates.

Rendering sensor position with mayavi

It is also possible to render an image of a MEG sensor helmet in 3D, using mayavi instead of matplotlib, by calling the mne.viz.plot_alignment() function:

fig = mne.viz.plot_alignment(, trans=None, dig=False, eeg=False,
                             surfaces=[], meg=['helmet', 'sensors'],
mne.viz.set_3d_view(fig, azimuth=50, elevation=90, distance=0.5)


Getting helmet for system 306m

plot_alignment() requires an Info object, and can also render MRI surfaces of the scalp, skull, and brain (by passing keywords like 'head', 'outer_skull', or 'brain' to the surfaces parameter) making it useful for assessing coordinate frame transformations. For examples of various uses of plot_alignment(), see Plotting sensor layouts of EEG Systems, Plotting EEG sensors on the scalp, and Plotting sensor layouts of MEG systems.

Total running time of the script: ( 0 minutes 8.890 seconds)

Estimated memory usage: 487 MB

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