Sensory attenuation in the absence of movement: Differentiating motor action from sense of agency

Nathan Han*, Bradley N. Jack, Gethin Hughes, Ruth B. Elijah, Thomas J. Whitford

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    Sensory attenuation is the phenomenon that stimuli generated by willed motor actions elicit a smaller neurophysiological response than those generated by external sources. It has mostly been investigated in the auditory domain, by comparing ERPs evoked by self-initiated (active condition) and externally-generated (passive condition) sounds. The mechanistic basis of sensory attenuation has been argued to involve a duplicate of the motor command being used to predict sensory consequences of self-generated movements. An alternative possibility is that the effect is driven by between-condition differences in participants’ sense of agency over the sound. In this paper, we disambiguated the effects of motor-action and sense of agency on sensory attenuation with a novel experimental paradigm. In Experiment 1, participants watched a moving, marked tickertape while EEG was recorded. In the active condition, participants chose whether to press a button by a certain mark on the tickertape. If a button-press had not occurred by the mark, then a tone would be played 1 s later. If the button was pressed prior to the mark, the tone was not played. In the passive condition, participants passively watched the animation, and were informed about whether a tone would be played on each trial. The design for Experiment 2 was identical, except that the contingencies were reversed (i.e., a button-press by the mark led to a tone). The results were consistent across the two experiments: while there were no differences in N1 amplitude between the active and passive conditions, the amplitude of the Tb component was suppressed in the active condition. The amplitude of the P2 component was enhanced in the active condition in both Experiments 1 and 2. These results suggest that motor-actions and sense of agency have differential effects on sensory attenuation to sounds and are indexed with different ERP components.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)436-448
    Number of pages13
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


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