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Conventionally, voluntary conscious acts and automatic behavior have been considered to be mediated by separate processes-and by separate brain structures. In this review, the authors consider the evidence that this might not be the case. First, they draw together disparate lines of evidence showing that visual stimuli cause automatic and unconscious motor activation. They briefly discuss the visual grasp reflex (automatic orienting of gaze to a salient visual stimulus), subliminal priming, and object affordances in healthy individuals. They also consider cases where inhibition of such reflexive behavior may be disrupted following brain lesions, as in patients demonstrating alien limb syndrome and utilization behavior. The authors argue that automatic motor activation forms an intrinsic part of all behavior, rather than being categorically different from voluntary actions. A crucial issue is how such automatic mechanisms are controlled so that the most appropriate responses are made and unwanted responses inhibited. The authors discuss some of the brain areas involved, including the supplementary motor area and the parietal cortex. Last, they review evidence that some control may actually be achieved by automatically triggered inhibition as well as modulation of unconscious processes by attention and task goals.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





474 - 486


Brain, Consciousness, Hand Strength, Humans, Movement, Psychomotor Performance, Reflex, Saccades, Unconscious (Psychology), Volition