Performing a cognitive task requires going through a sequence of functionally diverse stages. Although it is typically assumed that these stages are characterized by distinct states of cortical synchrony that are triggered by sub-cortical events, little reported evidence supports this hypothesis. To test this hypothesis, we first identified cognitive stages in single-trial MEG data of an associative recognition task, showing with a novel method that each stage begins with local modulations of synchrony followed by a state of directed functional connectivity. Second, we developed the first whole-brain model that can simulate cortical synchrony throughout a task. The model suggests that the observed synchrony is caused by thalamocortical bursts at the onset of each stage, targeted at cortical synapses and interacting with the structural anatomical connectivity. These findings confirm that cognitive stages are defined by distinct states of cortical synchrony and explains the network-level mechanisms necessary for reaching stage-dependent synchrony states.