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Neuroimage. 2018 Jan 15;165:35-47. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.09.057. Epub 2017 Sep 28.

Precursor processes of human self-initiated action.

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Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London WC1N 3AR, UK.
Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, CEA DRF/I2BM, INSERM, Université Paris-Sud, Université Paris-Saclay, NeuroSpin Center, 91191 Gif/Yvette, France.
Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK.
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London WC1N 3AR, UK. Electronic address:


A gradual buildup of electrical potential over motor areas precedes self-initiated movements. Recently, such "readiness potentials" (RPs) were attributed to stochastic fluctuations in neural activity. We developed a new experimental paradigm that operationalized self-initiated actions as endogenous 'skip' responses while waiting for target stimuli in a perceptual decision task. We compared these to a block of trials where participants could not choose when to skip, but were instead instructed to skip. Frequency and timing of motor action were therefore balanced across blocks, so that conditions differed only in how the timing of skip decisions was generated. We reasoned that across-trial variability of EEG could carry as much information about the source of skip decisions as the mean RP. EEG variability decreased more markedly prior to self-initiated compared to externally-triggered skip actions. This convergence suggests a consistent preparatory process prior to self-initiated action. A leaky stochastic accumulator model could reproduce this convergence given the additional assumption of a systematic decrease in input noise prior to self-initiated actions. Our results may provide a novel neurophysiological perspective on the topical debate regarding whether self-initiated actions arise from a deterministic neurocognitive process, or from neural stochasticity. We suggest that the key precursor of self-initiated action may manifest as a reduction in neural noise.


Externally-triggered action; Human; Readiness potential; Self-initiated action; Stochastic fluctuations

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