Dissociating Neural Correlates of Action Monitoring and Metacognition of Agency

Miele, David B.; Wager, Tor D.; Metcalfe, Janet A.; Mitchell, Jason P.

Judgments of agency refer to people's self-reflective assessments concerning their own control: their assessments of the extent to which they themselves are responsible for an action. These self-reflective metacognitive judgments can be distinguished from action monitoring, which involves the detection of the divergence (or lack of divergence) between observed states and expected states. Presumably, people form judgments of agency by metacognitively reflecting on the output of their action monitoring and then consciously inferring the extent to which they caused the action in question. Although a number of previous imaging studies have been directed at action monitoring, none have assessed judgments of agency as a potentially separate process. The present fMRI study used an agency paradigm that not only allowed us to examine the brain activity associated with action monitoring but that also enabled us to investigate those regions associated with metacognition of agency. Regarding action monitoring, we found that being “out of control” during the task (i.e., detection of a discrepancy between observed and expected states) was associated with increased brain activity in the right TPJ, whereas being “in control” was associated with increased activity in the pre-SMA, rostral cingulate zone, and dorsal striatum (regions linked to self-initiated action). In contrast, when participants made self-reflective metacognitive judgments about the extent of their own control (i.e., judgments of agency) compared with when they made judgments that were not about control (i.e., judgments of performance), increased activity was observed in the anterior PFC, a region associated with self-reflective processing. These results indicate that action monitoring is dissociable from people's conscious self-attributions of control.


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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

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September 13, 2013