Reaching for the unknown: multiple target encoding and real-time decision-making in a rapid reach task

Cognition. 2010 Aug;116(2):168-76. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.04.008. Epub 2010 May 14.


Decision-making is central to human cognition. Fundamental to every decision is the ability to internally represent the available choices and their relative costs and benefits. The most basic and frequent decisions we make occur as our motor system chooses and executes only those actions that achieve our current goals. Although these interactions with the environment may appear effortless, this belies what must be incredibly sophisticated visuomotor decision-making processes. In order to measure how visuomotor decisions unfold in real-time, we used a unique reaching paradigm that forced participants to initiate rapid hand movements toward multiple potential targets, with only one being cued after reach onset. We show across three experiments that, in cases of target uncertainty, trajectories are spatially sensitive to the probabilistic distribution of targets within the display. Specifically, when presented with two or three target displays, subjects initiate their reaches toward an intermediary or 'averaged' location before correcting their trajectory in-flight to the cued target location. A control experiment suggests that our effect depends on the targets acting as potential reach locations and not as distractors. This study is the first to show that the 'averaging' of target-directed reaching movements depends not only on the spatial position of the targets in the display but also the probability of acting at each target location.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arm
  • Cues
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Hand
  • Humans
  • Movement / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology*