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Front. Hum. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00068

Probing for intentions: Why clocks do not provide the only measurement of time

 Ceci Verbaarschot1*,  Pim Haselager1 and Jason Farquhar1
  • 1Donders Centre for Cognition, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, Netherlands

Having an intention to act is commonly operationalized as the moment at which awareness of an urge or decision to act arises. Measuring this moment has been challenging due to the dependence on first-person reports of subjective experience rather than objective behavioral or neural measurements. Commonly, this challenge is met using (variants of) Libet's clock method. In 2008, Matsuhashi and Hallett published a novel probing strategy as an alternative to the clock method. We believe their probe method could provide a valuable addition to the clock method because: it measures the timing of an intention in real-time, it can be combined with additional (tactile, visual or auditory) stimuli to create a more ecologically valid experimental context, and it allows the measurement of the point of no return. Yet to this date, the probe method has not been applied widely - possibly due to concerns about the effects that the probes might have on the intention and/or action preparation processes. To address these concerns, a 2x2 within-subject design is tested. In this design, two variables are manipulated: (1) the requirement of an introspection report and (2) the presence of an auditory probe. Three observables are measured that provide information about the timing of an intention to act: (1) awareness reports of the subjective experience of having an intention, (2) neural preparatory activity for action, and (3) behavioral data of the performed actions. The presence of probes was found to speed up mean action times by roughly 300 ms, but did not alter the neural preparation for action. The requirement of an introspection report did influence brain signals: reducing the amplitude of the readiness potential and increasing the desynchronization in the alpha and beta bands over the motor cortex prior to action onset. By discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the probe method compared to the clock method, we hope to demonstrate its added value and promote its use in future research.

Keywords: Awareness, EEG, ERD, Intention, Movement, probe, Rp, action

Received: 26 Jul 2018; Accepted: 11 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Joshua O. Goh, National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Reviewed by:

Rolf Verleger, Universität zu Lübeck, Germany
Chun Siong Soon, Other  

Copyright: © 2019 Verbaarschot, Haselager and Farquhar. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Ceci Verbaarschot, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, Donders Centre for Cognition, Nijmegen, Netherlands,