IMC Bootcamp on Agency

Studying Agency from different angles

2015.12.21 | Katrin Heimann

Date Thu 28 Jan
Time 09:30 16:00
Location IMC, Meeting Room

Every last Tuesday in the month, the IMC is organizing a full-day interactive workshop, each featuring an everlasting hot topic in cognitive neuroscience research and specifically, how to approach it methodologically. A group of invited experts present selected choices of research in the morning. In the afternoon all participants are invited to engage in an open discussion exploring adequacy, combinability and challenges of the introduced techniques especially when used within an interactive framework.

In this Bootcamp the topic is agency and how it can be studied.

When we perform voluntary actions we feel a sense of control over the action and the effect it has on the world. This feeling is often referred to as Agency. The actions we feel agency over can vary from very simple actions, such as pressing a button in a lift, to complex actions such as picking up a pen to write a note. Agency is a key aspect of being human and linking our internal world to the external world and changes we make in it.

Despite the privilege access we have to our own agency, there are some interesting challenges to the study of agency, e.g. how to measure agency and how to understand what agency as a conscious experience is.

Invited Speakers are Mads Jensen (Cfin Aarhus), Patrick Haggard (UCL, London), Aaron Schurger (INCERM, Gif-sur-Yvette) and Thor Grünbaum (University of Copenhagen).

 Lunch and coffee will be provided by the IMC.





9:30 Mads Jensen - Introduction into Research on Agency

When we perform an action we have an accompanying feeling of control over the action, this feeling is referred to as Agency. The actions we can feel agency over can vary from very simple actions, such as pressing a button in a lift, to complex actions such as picking up a pen to write a note. This feeling of agency is a key aspect for linking our internal world to the external world and changes we make in the external world. I will in my talk give a short introduction to the phenomena of agency, key studies in agency research, and theories of agency.

10:45 Patrick Haggard - Grappling with the sense of agency

A feeling of being in control of what we are currently doing provides the normal backdrop to our waking mental life.  This feeling is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to isolate experimentally.  I will discuss how it can be operationalised and measured in experimental designs, and I will consider its neural correlates.  Current behavioural research often views sense of agency as a post-hoc inference, or even an illusion.  I will argue that, in addition, it is also a conscious correlate of the brain's planning and prediction of voluntary action.

12:00 LUNCH

12:45 Aaron Schurger - Neural antecedents of spontaneous voluntary movement

How are actions initiated by the human brain when there is no external sensory cue or other immediate imperative? How do subtle ongoing interactions within the brain and between the brain, body, and sensory context influence the spontaneous initiation of action? How should we approach the problem of trying to identify the neural events that cause spontaneous voluntary action? Much is understood about how the brain decides between competing alternatives, leading to different behavioral responses. But far less is known about how the brain decides "when" to perform an action, or "whether" to perform an action in the first place, especially in a context where there is no sensory cue to act such as during foraging. Fifty years ago, in 1965, scientists discovered a slow buildup of neural activity that precedes the onset of spontaneous self-initiated movements (movements made without any cue telling you when to move). This buildup was dubbed the "readiness potential" or Bereitschaftspotential. For the past five decades it has been assumed to reflect a process of "planning and preparation for movement". In the 1980s the readiness potential was used to argue that we do not have conscious free will, because the readiness potential appears to begin even before we are aware of our own conscious decision to act. Now we and others have challenged that long-standing interpretation by showing that the early part of the readiness potential might reflect sub-threshold random fluctuations in brain activity that have an influence on the precise moment that the movement begins. These fluctuations thus appear as part of the "signal" when we analyze the data time-locked to the time of movement onset. This fundamental insight leads to novel and testable predictions concerning both objective (brain signals and behavior) and subjective (the perceived time of the conscious intention) phenomena, some of which we have already begun to test. I will discuss some published work as well as work in progress along these lines.

14:00 Thor Grünbaum

Interest in the sense of agency among cognitive neuroscientists has exploded in the last decade. There remains in the literature an uncertainty about what is meant by a “sense of agency”. In this talk, I review a number of the most prominent proposals. I suggest a general form of analysis for identifying the meaning of the term according to which “sense of agency” is treated as a theoretical term. This will allow us to ask whether anything is lost by eliminating the notion of a sense of agency from the various models of control.

15:15 General discussion and snacks