Specificity of action selection modulates the perceived temporal order of action and sensory events

Exp Brain Res. 2018 Aug;236(8):2157-2164. doi: 10.1007/s00221-018-5292-5. Epub 2018 May 19.


The perceived temporal order of actions and changes in the environment is crucial for our inferences of causality. Sensory events presented shortly after an action are more likely considered as self-generated compared to the same events occurring before action execution. However, the estimation of when an action or a sensory change occurred is a challenge for the human brain. This estimation is formed from available sensory information combined with internal representations. Researchers suggested that internal signals associated with action preparation drive our awareness of initiating an action. This study aimed to directly investigate this hypothesis. Participants performed a speeded action (left or right key-press) in response to a go-signal (left or right arrow). A flash was presented at different time points around the time of the action, and participants judged whether it was simultaneous with the action or not. To investigate the role of action preparation in time perception, we compared trials where a cue indicated which action to perform in response to a later go signal presentation, and trials with a neutral cue where participants did not know until the time of the go signal which action to perform. We observed that a flash presented before the action was reported as simultaneous with the action more frequently when actions were cued than when they were uncued. This difference was not observed when the action was replaced by a tactile stimulation. These results indicate that precued actions are experienced earlier in time compared to unprepared actions. Further, this difference is not due to mere non-motor expectation of an event. The experience of initiating an action is driven by action preparation process: when we know what to do, actions are perceived ahead of time.

Keywords: Action awareness; Action selection; Time perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Young Adult