Implicit mechanisms of intention

Tyson Aflalo, Carey Zhang, Boris Revechkis, Emily Rosario, Nader Pouratian, Richard A. Andersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


High-level cortical regions encode motor decisions before or even absent awareness, suggesting that neural processes predetermine behavior before conscious choice. Such early neural encoding challenges popular conceptions of human agency. It also raises fundamental questions for brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that traditionally assume that neural activity reflects the user's conscious intentions. Here, we study the timing of human posterior parietal cortex single-neuron activity recorded from implanted microelectrode arrays relative to the explicit urge to initiate movement. Participants were free to choose when to move, whether to move, and what to move, and they retrospectively reported the time they felt the urge to move. We replicate prior studies by showing that posterior parietal cortex (PPC) neural activity sharply rises hundreds of milliseconds before the reported urge. However, we find that this “preconscious” activity is part of a dynamic neural population response that initiates much earlier, when the participant first chooses to perform the task. Together with details of neural timing, our results suggest that PPC encodes an internal model of the motor planning network that transforms high-level task objectives into appropriate motor behavior. These new data challenge traditional interpretations of early neural activity and offer a more holistic perspective on the interplay between choice, behavior, and their neural underpinnings. Our results have important implications for translating BMIs into more complex real-world environments. We find that early neural dynamics are sufficient to drive BMI movements before the participant intends to initiate movement. Appropriate algorithms ensure that BMI movements align with the subject's awareness of choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2051-2060.e6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 9 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Libet
  • awareness of intent
  • brain-machine interface
  • decision
  • motor planning
  • posterior parietal cortex
  • readiness potential
  • self-initiated action
  • volition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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