Journal of Neurophysiology

Changing the “When” and “What” of Intended Actions

Sukhvinder S. Obhi, Shannon Matkovich, Robert Chen


Humans often have to modify the timing and/or type of their planned actions on the basis of new sensory information. In the present experiments, participants planned to make a right index finger keypress 3 s after a warning stimulus but on some trials were interrupted by a temporally unpredictable auditory tone prompting the same action (experiment 1) or a different action (experiment 2). In experiment 1, by comparing the reaction time (RT) to tones presented at different stages of the preparatory period to RT in a simple reaction time condition, we determined the cost of switching from an internally generated mode of response production to an externally triggered mode in situations requiring only a change in when an action is made (i.e., when the tone prompts the action at a different time from the intended time of action). Results showed that the cost occurred for interruption tones delivered 200 ms after a warning stimulus and remained relatively stable throughout most of the preparatory period with a reduction in the magnitude of the cost during the last 200 ms prior to the intended time of movement. In experiment 2, which included conditions requiring a change in both when and what action is produced on the tone, results show a larger cost when the switched to action is different from the action being prepared. We discuss our results in the light of neurophysiological experiments on motor preparation and suggest that intending to act is accompanied by a general inhibitory mechanism preventing premature motor output and a specific excitatory process pertaining to the intended movement. Interactions between these two mechanisms could account for our behavioral results.


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