What is the difference between a blink, a wink, and the dilation of a pupil? The basic nuts and bolts underlying human action remain mysterious from a mechanistic point of view. Everyday actions such as naming an object, suppressing the urge to say something, or grabbing a waiter's attention with a "cappuccino, please" remain difficult to understand from a scientific, biologically-based standpoint. At our laboratory, we investigate action control from an integrative cognitive neuroscience perspective, focusing on both unconscious brain mechanisms and conscious mechanisms (e.g., voluntary action and cognitive conflict, urges, working memory, impulse control).
One aim of the lab is to home in on the neural and cognitive mechanisms responsible for conscious states, in order to reveal how the brain yields adaptive action control and also maladaptive action, as in the case of some neurological disorders. The research in our laboratory is untraditional in that we work backwards from overt action to the conscious and unconscious central processes responsible for it, rather than work forward from an external perceptual stimulus to central processing.
The Theoretical Approach: Consciousness and Action Control
Recent research illuminates the subset of areas and processes that are most closely related to conscious processing. These investigations reveal that consciousness serves to integrate only certain kinds of information/processes. Many forms of integration can occur unconsciously. The peculiar form of integration associated with consciousness involves a form of information integration that is intimately related to (a) what is casually referred to as 'voluntary' action and (b) the skeletal muscle output system. All these developments are synthesized in Passive Frame Theory, which appeared as the target article "Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: An action-based synthesis" in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Click here for brief review of the theory.
Behavioral support for Passive Frame Theory is listed on the Publications page (e.g., the five sections of publications, organized by theme) and stems also from the Reflexive Imagery Task. In collaboration with John Bargh, Adam Gazzaley, Jeremy Gray, and Mark Geisler, we are evaluating Passive Frame Theory using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques. In addition, with the assistance of the neurologist Stephen Krieger and colleagues at the UCSF Memory and Aging center, we are examining the implications that Passive Frame Theory and the lab's research has for disorders of awareness and disorders involving action selection (e.g., frontotemporal dementia).
For a video explanation of the theory, click Lecture.
For an updated version of this lecture, which focuses more directly on Passive Frame Theory,
We use response interference paradigms and the Reflexive Imagery Task to learn about the subjective aspects of action production (e.g., urges) and use delayed action tasks to learn about the subjective aspects (e.g., imagery, sense of agency) of action control requiring working memory.
The neural and behavioral investigations at the lab fall into three primary research lines:
Line 1: "Pre-entry" research: Action-related determinants of what enters consciousness, including entry into consciousness of urges, percepts, and high-level imagery. Representative paradigms and topics: reflexive imagery task, set-induced entry into consciousness, the Libet paradigm, refreshing in working memory (delayed response tasks), and interference paradigms such as the Stroop and flanker tasks, which account for half of the publications from our lab.
Line 2: "Post-entry" research: Representative paradigms and topics: reflexive imagery task, self-control, sense of agency, indirect cognitive control, and working-memory-based action control.
Line 3: Actional components of mental representation. Representative paradigms and topics: ideomotor processing, motor components of semantic representation, and folk theories about action production.