Extending experiences of voluntary action by association.
Khalighinejad N., Haggard P.
"Sense of agency" refers to the experience that links one's voluntary actions to their external outcomes. It remains unclear whether this ubiquitous experience is hardwired, arising from specific signals within the brain's motor systems, or rather depends on associative learning, through repeated cooccurrence of voluntary movements and their outcomes. To distinguish these two models, we asked participants to trigger a tone by a voluntary keypress action. The voluntary action was always associated with an involuntary movement of the other hand. We then tested whether the combination of the involuntary movement and tone alone might now suffice to produce a sense of agency, even when the voluntary action was omitted. Sense of agency was measured using an implicit marker based on time perception, namely a shift in the perceived time of the outcome toward the action that caused it. Across two experiments, repeatedly pairing an involuntary movement with a voluntary action induced key temporal features of agency, with the outcome now perceived as shifted toward the involuntary movement. This shift required involuntary movements to have been previously associated with voluntary actions. We show that some key aspects of agency may be transferred from voluntary actions to involuntary movements. An internal volitional signal is required for the primary acquisition of agency but, with repeated association, the involuntary movement in itself comes to produce some key temporal features of agency over the subsequent outcome. This finding may explain how humans can develop an enduring sense of agency in nonnatural cases, like brain-machine interfaces.