Near optimal combination of sensory and motor uncertainty in time during a naturalistic perception-action task

J Neurophysiol. 2009 Apr;101(4):1901-12. doi: 10.1152/jn.90974.2008. Epub 2008 Dec 24.


Most behavioral tasks have time constraints for successful completion, such as catching a ball in flight. Many of these tasks require trading off the time allocated to perception and action, especially when only one of the two is possible at any time. In general, the longer we perceive, the smaller the uncertainty in perceptual estimates. However, a longer perception phase leaves less time for action, which results in less precise movements. Here we examine subjects catching a virtual ball. Critically, as soon as subjects began to move, the ball became invisible. We study how subjects trade-off sensory and movement uncertainty by deciding when to initiate their actions. We formulate this task in a probabilistic framework and show that subjects' decisions when to start moving are statistically near optimal given their individual sensory and motor uncertainties. Moreover, we accurately predict individual subject's task performance. Thus we show that subjects in a natural task are quantitatively aware of how sensory and motor variability depend on time and act so as to minimize overall task variability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Feedback
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Orientation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Time Factors
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Uncertainty*
  • User-Computer Interface
  • Young Adult