Journal article

The limits of agency in walking humans

An important principle of human ethics is that individuals are not responsible for actions performed when unconscious. Recent research found that the generation of an action and the building of a conscious experience of that action (agency) are distinct processes and crucial mechanisms for self-consciousness. Yet, previous agency studies have focussed on actions of a finger or hand. Here, we investigate how agents consciously monitor actions of the entire body in space during locomotion. This was motivated by previous work revealing that (1) a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness concerns a single and coherent representation of the entire spatially situated body and (2) clinical instances of human behaviour without consciousness occur in rare neurological conditions such as sleepwalking or epileptic nocturnal wandering. Merging techniques from virtual reality, full-body tracking, and cognitive science of conscious action monitoring, we report experimental data about consciousness during locomotion in healthy participants. We find that agents consciously monitor the location of their entire body and its locomotion only with low precision and report that while precision remains low it can be systematically modulated in several experimental conditions. This shows that conscious action monitoring in locomoting agents can be studied in a fine-grained manner. We argue that the study of the mechanisms of agency for a person's full body may help to refine our scientific criteria of self-hood and discuss sleepwalking and related conditions as alterations in neural systems encoding motor awareness in walking humans.

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