Hypercapnia produces an uncomfortable urge to breathe ('air hunger'), which is alleviated by increasing breathing. It has been postulated that awake humans control breathing partly to minimize these sensations; such behavioral control presumably involves the forebrain. To test this postulate, we compared the ventilatory response to hypercapnia when the subject breathed spontaneously to the response when the subject used forebrain commands to control ventilation--on the basis of minimizing air hunger (achieved with subject-controlled positive pressure ventilation). In six healthy adults during hypercapnia (46 mmHg), spontaneous ventilation significantly exceeded, by 17%, the level of (mechanical) ventilation needed to alleviate air hunger. This suggests that spontaneous breathing is not behaviorally controlled to minimize discomfort. Alternatively, mechanical ventilation confers an additional relief of air hunger beyond that provided by spontaneous breathing. Since mechanical ventilation (with reduced respiratory muscle contraction) was more effective than spontaneous breathing in relieving air hunger, our results also suggest afferents that signal the degree of respiratory muscle contraction do not contribute to air hunger relief.