Self in motion: sensorimotor and cognitive mechanisms in gait agency
Acting in our environment and experiencing ourselves as conscious agents are fundamental aspects of human selfhood. While large advances have been made with respect to understanding human sensorimotor control from an engineering approach, knowledge about its interaction with cognition and the conscious experience of movement (agency) is still sparse, especially for locomotion. We investigated these relationships by using life-size visual feedback of participants' ongoing locomotion, thereby extending agency research previously limited to goal-directed upper limb movements to continuous movements of the entire body. By introducing temporal delays and cognitive loading we were able to demonstrate distinct effects of bottom-up visuomotor conflicts as well as top-down cognitive loading on the conscious experience of locomotion (gait agency) and gait movements. While gait agency depended on the spatial and temporal congruency of the avatar feedback, gait movements were solely driven by its temporal characteristics as participants nonconsciously attempted to synchronize their gait with their avatar's gait. Furthermore, gait synchronization was suppressed by cognitive loading across all tested delays, whereas gait agency was only affected for selective temporal delays that depended on the participant's step cycle. Extending data from upper limb agency and auditory gait agency, our results are compatible with effector-independent and supramodal control of agency; they show that both mechanisms are dissociated from automated sensorimotor control and that cognitive loading further enhances this dissociation.