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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Neurocognitive mechanisms of action control: resisting the call of the Sirens

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An essential facet of adaptive and versatile behavior is the ability to prioritize actions in response to dynamically changing circumstances. The field of potential actions afforded by a situation is shaped by many factors, such as environmental demands, past experiences, and prepotent tendencies. Selection among action affordances can be driven by deliberate, intentional processes as a product of goal‐directed behavior and by extraneous stimulus–action associations as established inherently or through learning. We first review the neurocognitive mechanisms putatively linked to these intention‐driven and association‐driven routes of action selection. Next, we review the neurocognitive mechanisms engaged to inhibit action affordances that are no longer relevant or that interfere with goal‐directed action selection. Optimal action control is viewed as a dynamic interplay between selection and suppression mechanisms, which is achieved by an elaborate circuitry of interconnected cortical regions (most prominently the pre‐supplementary motor area and the right inferior frontal cortex) and basal ganglia structures (most prominently the dorsal striatum and the subthalamic nucleus). WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 174–192 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.99

Figure 1.

‘Odysseus and the Sirens’ (1891) by J. W. Waterhouse. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Odysseus was eager to learn what the Sirens sounded like but at the same time feared giving into the appeal of their song. Odysseus therefore had his sailors tie him to the mast of his boat and ordered them to leave him there, even if he'd beg to be untied. Upon hearing the Sirens' song, he was immediately enchanted by its beauty and promise, and begged the sailors to unleash him, but they couldn't hear him because he had ordered them to plug their ears with wax (Odyssey XII, 39). In popular language, ‘the call of the Sirens’ refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result.

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Figure 2.

Medial frontal cortex. Midsagittal view of the medial wall (left) and lateral prefrontal cortex surface (right), delineating the main subregions of the supplementary motor complex (supplementary motor area, supplementary eye field, and pre‐supplementary motor area).

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Figure 3.

Conditional accuracy functions. (a) Three subgroups of patients diagnosed with Parkinson's disease divided in terms of symptom severity. The subgroup with most severe symptoms displays more fast errors on incompatible trials compared to the other two subgroups (adapted with permission from Ref 93 Copyright 2010 The MIT Press). (b) Performance of healthy participants in the Simon task reveals that the probability of rapid activation of the muscle involved in the correct response is high for compatible trials, but significantly below chance in incompatible trials, indicating strong capture of the response solicited by the task‐irrelevant stimulus position. Re‐analysis of data that were originally reported in Ref 94.

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Figure 4.

Stop task. Participants press response buttons, either with their left or right hand, according to the direction of the green arrow (go signal), but try to stop responding upon the incidental presentation of a subsequent auditory tone (stop signal).

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Figure 5.

Simon task. Participants press response buttons, either with their left or right hand, according to the color of the circle (dotted arrow). Although the position of the circle is task irrelevant, its action affordance incites a strong tendency to activate the corresponding hand (solid arrow), which leads to longer RT and more response errors in incompatible trials compared to compatible trials.

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Figure 6.

Lateral prefrontal cortex. Lateral surface of the prefrontal brain, delineating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (blue) and the inferior frontal cortex (yellow).

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Figure 7.

Delta plots. Delta plots illustrate individual differences in the ability to reduce the magnitude of the interference effect over time. Specifically, delta plots depict the Simon effect as a function of reaction time quantile. The slope of the delta plot at the slower end of the RT distribution is indicative of the efficiency of selective response inhibition: the more negative going, the stronger the inhibition (see main text) (adapted with permission from Ref 93 Copyright 2010 The MIT Press). (a) Delta plot illustrating impaired selective suppression in patients diagnosed with Parkinson's disease (PD) compared to age‐matched healthy controls (HC). (b) Delta plot illustrating impaired selective suppression in PD patients with severe clinical symptoms compared to patients with less severe symptoms.

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