Although resuscitation for sudden cardiac arrest attempts are frequently not instituted for several minutes after the onset of ventricular fibrillation (VF), previous mapping studies have examined only the first 40 s of VF or have involved isolated perfused hearts that did not become ischemic during VF. We applied quantitative pattern analysis to mapping data throughout the first 10 min of VF acquired from a 21 x 24 unipolar electrode array located on the ventricular epicardium of six open-chest dogs. The following twelve descriptors were continuously quantified: 1) number of wavefronts, 2) incidence of reentry, 3) wavefront propagation velocity, 4) incidence of breakthrough/focus, 5) incidence of block, 6) mean area activated by the wavefronts, 7) wavefront fractionations, 8) wavefront collisions, 9) multiplicity index, 10) repeatability, 11) negative peak rate of voltage change, and 12) peak frequency of activation. Cluster analysis of these descriptors divided VF into five stages (stages i-v). The values of most descriptors (except block and breakthrough incidence) increased during stage i (1-11 s after VF induction) and maintained high values with rapid dynamic fluctuations during stage ii (12-62 s). Descriptors changed quickly to values indicating greater organization during stage iii (63-86 s), decreased steadily during stage iv (87-310 s), and approached zero during stage v (311-600 s). There was a high incidence of reentry just before, during, and after stage iii. In conclusion, during the first 10 min, VF can be divided into five stages according to the evolution of electrophysiological characteristics. All of the parameters show a rapid deterioration during VF, except for a temporary reversal approximately 1 min after induction when activation briefly became more organized. Thus a quantitative description of activation does not uniformly decrease as VF progresses, but undergo rapid changes and exhibit a brief interval of increased organization after approximately 1 min of VF. Further studies are warranted to determine whether these changes, particularly the increased organization of stage iii, have clinical consequences, such as an alteration in defibrillation efficacy.