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Intentions in Action: Establishing the neural causes of intentional action

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Intentions in Action (Intentions in Action: Establishing the neural causes of intentional action)

Reporting period: 2015-08-01 to 2017-07-31

Many neuroscientists have looked for action intentions in brain activity. Yet, an increasing number of scholars suggest that intentions emerge from the interaction of the cognitive system with the environment, and therefor cannot be found in the brain as such. In this project the possibility of finding brain states that correlate with intentions are investigated empirically. The general objective is to learn how actions emerge from the interaction of the cognitive system and its context. It is important to study this interaction between cognitive system and context, as it allows us to learn about cases in which action generation fails as well. This could be in clinical cases, in which the brain is unable to couple motivations to contextual features, or an ill-designed environment. As such, learning how actions are generated will help us designing interfaces that are optimally tuned to our neural functioning as well.
In a function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, action decisions were correlated with (multivariate patterns in) fMRI data. Action decisions were made in various meaningful contexts. We found that classification of intentions is possible when context remains stable. However, classification drops to chance-level when different contexts are used. This suggests that the brain processes driving action decisions are a dynamic configuration of sensorimotor processes. This is at odd with the notion of ‘intention,’ which suggests an invariant representational core. This data is in line with recent theoretical advances that suggest that the notion of intention refers to a post-hoc explanation of an action, rather than a brain state.

This project has produced the following results:

- Uithol, S. & Schurger, A. A. (2016). Reckoning the moment of reckoning in spontaneous voluntary movement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(4), 817–819. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523226113
- Uithol, S. & Fiebich, A., (submitted). Beyond Funnel Vision; Broadening the scope of social cognition
- Uithol, S., Görgen, K., Pischedda, D., Toni, I. Haynes., J-D., (in prep.) Action intentions: What is in the brain and what is in the context? An fMRI decoding study
- Uithol, S. & Burnston, D., (in prep). An embodied perspective on action selection
- Burnston, D., Uithol, S., (in prep). Intentional Action

Preliminary results have been presented at:

- Colloquium Consciousness & Cognition (2015, Bochum, Germany)
- Dutch Society for Psychonomics (2015, Egmond aan Zee, the Netherlands)
- The International Conference on Free Will (2017, Sigtuna, Sweden)
- Summer schools Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience (2017, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands)
Although intentions are primarily studied as invariant representations, most neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers assume that action intentions have context-dependent elements, as otherwise they would not lead to appropriate actions. Yet, what these results suggest is that intentions may be more variant and context-dependent than that is currently assumed, and in fact suggest that the implementations of intentions may be context-dependent through-and-through. This could have important implications for the way we do neuroscience, as generalisation across contexts is not something one can assume. More research, both empirical and conceptual, is needed to assess these implications.
Intention classification within the same context (left), in different contexts (right)