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Front Integr Neurosci. 2012 Sep 27;6:84. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2012.00084. eCollection 2012.

Patterns of brain activity distinguishing free and forced actions: contribution from sensory cortices.

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  • 1Neuroscience and Mental Health Program, Hospital for Sick Children Toronto, ON, Canada ; Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto Toronto, ON, Canada.


The neural basis of decision-making is extremely complex due to the large number of factors that contribute to the outcome of even the most basic actions as well as the range of appropriate responses within many behavioral contexts. To better understand the neural processes underlying basic forms of decision-making, this study utilized an experiment that required a choice about whether to press a button with the right or left hand. These instances of decision-making were compared to identical button presses that were experimentally specified rather than selected by the subject. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to record neural activity during these-what are being termed-free and forced actions and differences in the MEG signal between these two conditions were attributed to the distinct forms of neural activity required to carry out the two types of actions. To produce instances of free and forced behavior, cued button-pressing experiments were performed that use visual, aural, and memorized cues to instruct experimental subjects of the expected outcome of individual trials. Classification analysis of the trials revealed that cortical regions that allowed for the most accurate classification of free and forced actions primarily handle sensory input for the modality used to cue the trials: occipital cortex for visually cued trials, temporal cortex for aurally cued trials, and minor non-localized differences in MEG activity for trials initiated from memory. The differential roles of visual and auditory sensory cortices during free and forced actions provided insight into the neural processing steps that were engaged to initiate cued actions. Specifically, it suggested that detectable differences exist in the activity of sensory cortices and their target sites when subjects performed free and forced actions in response to sensory cues.


decision-making; free will; granger causality; magnetoencephalography (MEG); single trial classification

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