How automatic is the hand's automatic pilot? Evidence from dual-task studies

Robert D. McIntosh, Amy Mulroue, James R. Brockmole

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ability to correct reaching movements for changes in target position has been described as the hand's 'automatic pilot'. These corrections are preconscious and occur by default in double-step reaching tasks, even if the goal is to react to the target jump in some other way, for instance by stopping the movement (STOP instruction). Nonetheless, corrections are strongly modulated by conscious intention: participants make more corrections when asked to follow the target (GO instruction) and can suppress them when explicitly asked not to follow the target (NOGO instruction). We studied the influence of a cognitively demanding (auditory 1-back) task upon correction behaviour under GO, STOP and NOGO instructions. Correction rates under the STOP instruction were unaffected by cognitive load, consistent with the assumption that they reflect the default behaviour of the automatic pilot. Correction rates under the GO instruction were also unaffected, suggesting that minimal cognitive resources are required to enhance online correction. By contrast, cognitive load impeded the ability to suppress online corrections under the NOGO instruction. These data reveal a constitutional bias in the automatic pilot system: intentional suppression of the default correction behaviour is cognitively demanding, but enhancement towards greater responsiveness is seemingly effortless.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)257-269
Number of pages13
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010


  • Visuomotor
  • Online correction
  • Attention
  • Automatic


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