Intended actions and unexpected outcomes: automatic and controlled processing in a rapid motor task.
Human action involves a combination of controlled and automatic behavior. These processes may interact in tasks requiring rapid response selection or inhibition, where temporal constraints preclude timely intervention by conscious, controlled processes over automatized prepotent responses. Such contexts tend to produce frequent errors, but also rapidly executed correct responses, both of which may sometimes be perceived as surprising, unintended, or "automatic". In order to identify neural processes underlying these two aspects of cognitive control, we measured neuromagnetic brain activity in 12 right-handed subjects during manual responses to rapidly presented digits, with an infrequent target digit that required switching response hand (bimanual task) or response finger (unimanual task). Automaticity of responding was evidenced by response speeding (shorter response times) prior to both failed and fast correct switches. Consistent with this automaticity interpretation of fast correct switches, we observed bilateral motor preparation, as indexed by suppression of beta band (15-30 Hz) oscillations in motor cortex, prior to processing of the switch cue in the bimanual task. In contrast, right frontal theta activity (4-8 Hz) accompanying correct switch responses began after cue onset, suggesting that it reflected controlled inhibition of the default response. Further, this activity was reduced on fast correct switch trials suggesting a more automatic mode of inhibitory control. We also observed post-movement (event-related negativity) ERN-like responses and theta band increases in medial and anterior frontal regions that were significantly larger on error trials, and may reflect a combination of error and delayed inhibitory signals. We conclude that both automatic and controlled processes are engaged in parallel during rapid motor tasks, and that the relative strength and timing of these processes may underlie both optimal task performance and subjective experiences of automaticity or control.