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Humans seem to decide for themselves what to do, and when to do it. This distinctive capacity may emerge from an ability, shared with other animals, to make decisions for action that are related to future goals, or at least free from the constraints of immediate environmental inputs. Studying such volitional acts proves a major challenge for neuroscience. This review highlights key mechanisms in the generation of voluntary, as opposed to stimulus-driven actions, and highlights three issues. The first part focuses on the apparent spontaneity of voluntary action. The second part focuses on one of the most distinctive, but elusive, features of volition, namely, its link to conscious experience, and reviews stimulation and patient studies of the cortical basis of conscious volition down to the single-neuron level. Finally, we consider the goal-directedness of voluntary action, and discuss how internal generation of action can be linked to goals and reasons.


This article was originally published in Journal of Neuroscience, volume 37, issue 45, in 2017. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2584-17.2017


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