Waiting in readiness: Gating in attention and motor preparation



    1. Physiological Psychology Section, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands
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    • Address reprint requests to: C. H. M. Brunia, Physiological Psychology Section, Tilburg University, P.O. Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands.

  • This paper is based on the Presidential Address to the Society for Psychophysiological Research at San Diego, October 1992, Much of the research described in this paper was granted by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO, PSYCHON).

  • Thanks are due to Michael Coles, and to Koen Böcker, Jan Boelhouwer, Geert van Boxtel, Ernst Damen, Thomas Elbert, Dick Jennings, Greg Miller, Maurits van der Molen, and Rien Verbaten for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper.


In this paper the similarities in the structural and functional organization of motor preparation and attension are discussed. A crucial structure in this organization is the thalamus, a complex of sensory and motor nuclei that transmits information from subcortical origins to the cortex. For the most part, the thalamus is overlapped by the nucleus reticularis, which has a local inhibitory influence on the underlying nuclei. This serves as a gating mechanism for the transmission of sensory information to the cortex. Skinner and Yingling (1977) have provided arguments in favor of a frontal control in the gating of sensory information. The present paper extends their suggestions to the motor system: a similar gating mechanism for the transmission of subcortical motor information to the cortex is hypothesized, also under frontal control. Slow potentials recorded during motor preparation and attention for an upcoming stimulus show a different distribution over the scalp. These distributions are interpreted as an indication of which thalamic gates are open to transmit information to the cortex. Probe responses (spinal reflexes, evoked potentials, and the startle reflex) can also be used to investigate which thalamocortical gates are open under certain experimental conditions. It is concluded that the sensory and motor input to the cortex are subjected to a similar control mechanism.