The Readiness Potential reflects planning-based expectation, not uncertainty, in the timing of action.
Travers E., Friedemann M., Haggard P.
Actions are guided by a combination of external cues, internal intentions, and stored knowledge. Self-initiated voluntary actions, produced without immediate external cues, may be preceded by a slow EEG Readiness Potential (RP) that progressively increases prior to action. The cognitive significance of this neural event is controversial. Some accounts link the RP to the fact that timing of voluntary actions is generated endogenously, without external constraints. Others link it to the unique role of a planning process, and therefore of temporal expectation, in voluntary actions. In many previous experiments, actions are unconstrained by external cues, but also potentially involve preplanning and anticipation. To separate these factors, we developed a reinforcement learning paradigm where participants learned, through trial and error, the optimal time to act. If the RP reflects freedom from external constraint, its amplitude should be greater early in learning, when participants do not yet know when to act. Conversely, if the RP reflects planning, it should be greater later on, when participants have learned, and plan in advance, the time of action. We found that RP amplitudes grew with learning, suggesting that this neural activity reflects planning and anticipation for the forthcoming action, rather than freedom from external constraint.