Violating body movement semantics: Neural signatures of self-generated and external-generated errors

NeuroImage | , Vol 124(A): pp. 147-156

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How do we recognize ourselves as the agents of our actions? Do we use the same error detection mechanisms to monitor self-generated vs. externally imposed actions? Using event-related brain potentials (ERPs), we identified two different error-monitoring loops involved in providing a coherent sense of the agency of our actions. In the first ERP experiment, the participants were embodied in a virtual body (avatar) while performing an error-prone fast reaction time task. Crucially, in certain trials, participants were deceived regarding their own actions, i.e., the avatar movement did not match the participant’s movement. Self-generated real errors and false (avatar) errors showed very different ERP signatures and with different processing latencies: while real errors showed a classical frontal-central error-related negativity (Ne/ERN), peaking 100 ms after error commission, false errors elicited a larger and delayed parietal negative component (at about 350–400 ms). The violation of the sense of agency elicited by false avatar errors showed a strong similarity to ERP signatures related to semantic or conceptual violations (N400 component). In a follow-up ERP control experiment, a subset of the same participants merely acted as observers of the avatar correct and error movements. This experimental situation did not elicit the N400 component associated with agency violation. Thus, the results show a clear neural dissociation between internal and external error-monitoring loops responsible for distinguishing our self-generated errors from those imposed externally, opening new avenues for the study of the mental processes underlying the integration of internal and sensory feedback information while being actors of our own actions.