Human perceptual decision making: disentangling task onset and stimulus onset

Hum Brain Mapp. 2014 Jul;35(7):3170-87. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22393. Epub 2013 Oct 18.


The left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (ldlPFC) has been highlighted as a key actor in human perceptual decision-making (PDM): It is theorized to support decision-formation independently of stimulus type or motor response. PDM studies however generally confound stimulus onset and task onset: when the to-be-recognized stimulus is presented, subjects know that a stimulus is shown and can set up processing resources-even when they do not know which stimulus is shown. We hypothesized that the ldlPFC might be involved in task preparation rather than decision-formation. To test this, we asked participants to report whether sequences of noisy images contained a face or a house within an experimental design that decorrelates stimulus and task onset. Decision-related processes should yield a sustained response during the task, whereas preparation-related areas should yield transient responses at its beginning. The results show that the brain activation pattern at task onset is strikingly similar to that observed in previous PDM studies. In particular, they contradict the idea that ldlPFC forms an abstract decision and suggest instead that its activation reflects preparation for the upcoming task. We further investigated the role of the fusiform face areas and parahippocampal place areas which are thought to be face and house detectors, respectively, that feed their signals to higher level decision areas. The response patterns within these areas suggest that this interpretation is unlikely and that the decisions about the presence of a face or a house in a noisy image might instead already be computed within these areas without requiring higher-order areas.

Keywords: fMRI; face house discrimination task; left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; perceptual decision-making; task preparation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen