Conjunctive representations that integrate stimuli, responses, and rules are critical for action selection


People can use abstract rules to flexibly configure and select actions for specific situations, yet how exactly rules shape actions toward specific sensory and/or motor requirements remains unclear. Both research from animal models and human-level theories of action control point to the role of highly integrated, conjunctive representations, sometimes referred to as event files. These representations are thought to combine rules with other, goal-relevant sensory and motor features in a nonlinear manner and represent a necessary condition for action selection. However, so far, no methods exist to track such representations in humans during action selection with adequate temporal resolution. Here, we applied time-resolved representational similarity analysis to the spectral-temporal profiles of electroencephalography signals while participants performed a cued, rule-based action selection task. In two experiments, we found that conjunctive representations were active throughout the entire selection period and were functionally dissociable from the representation of constituent features. Specifically, the strength of conjunctions was a highly robust predictor of trial-by-trial variability in response times and was selectively related to an important behavioral indicator of conjunctive representations, the so-called partial-overlap priming pattern. These results provide direct evidence for conjunctive representations as critical precursors of action selection in humans.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.