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This lecture is about motor representation. We will explore what it is, and how, if at all, discoveries about motor representation might feature in objections to standard philosophical attempts to solve The Problem of Action and, separately, The Problem of Joint Action.

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In this lecture we shift from thinking about the triggers of action to thinking about action guidance.

When we thought about the rat pressing a lever (in The Minor Puzzle about Habitual Processes), we were thinking about triggers. The triggers included a desire for sugar (in the case of a goal-directed process) or a stimulus--action link (in the case of a habitual process).

Discussion about habitual and goal-directed processes is discussion about triggers.

We focussed on triggers because we were mainly concerned with how an action is selected. Our question was why one action (lever pressing) should occur rather than no action or another action (nose scratching, say).

This is all mainly about what happens before the action.

But what about the action itself?

Pressing a lever requires the precise, temporally extended coordination of limbs, torso, effectors and fingers. Although many of us are too skilled to notice the difficulty, observing babies (who require many months of practice to be able to use individual fingers) makes the difficulty of pressing a lever obvious.

As we will see, many choices are involved in the period between initiating movement and successfully having pressed a lever. The same is true of many[1] other simple actions like opening a draw or grasping a mug and drinking from it: successful execution in a continuously changing environment involves making choices throughout the action.

Our challenge is to discover why people act, individually and jointly. In attempting to meet the challenge, we need to think not only about triggers (as we have been doing) but also about guidance (the topic of this lecture). And the key to understanding guidance is something called motor representation.

Prerequisites and What to Skip

This lecture depends on you having studied a section from a previous lecture:

For the minimum course of study, consider only this section:

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goal-directed process : A process which involves ‘a representation of the causal relationship between the action and outcome and a representation of the current incentive value, or utility, of the outcome’ and which influences an action ‘in a way that rationalizes the action as instrumental for attaining the goal’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177).
habitual process : A process underpinning some instrumental actions which obeys Thorndyke’s Law of Effect: ‘The presenta­tion of an effective [=rewarding] outcome following an action [...] rein­forces a connection between the stimuli present when the action is per­formed and the action itself so that subsequent presentations of these stimuli elicit the [...] action as a response’ (Dickinson, 1994, p. 48). (Interesting complication which you can safely ignore: there is probably much more to say about under what conditions the stimulus–action connection is strengthened; e.g. Thrailkill, Trask, Vidal, Alcalá, & Bouton, 2018.)
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
The Problem of Action : What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (According to Frankfurt (1978, p. 157), ‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’)
The Problem of Joint Action : What distinguishes doing something jointly with another person from acting in parallel with them but merely side by side?


Bratman, M. E. (2014). Shared agency: A planning theory of acting together. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
Dickinson, A. (1994). Instrumental conditioning. In N. Mackintosh (Ed.), Animal learning and cognition. London: Academic Press.
Dickinson, A. (2016). Instrumental conditioning revisited: Updating dual-process theory. In J. B. Trobalon & V. D. Chamizo (Eds.), Associative learning and cognition (Vol. 51, pp. 177–195). Edicions Universitat Barcelona.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1978). The problem of action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(2), 157–162.
Hyman, J. (2015). Action, knowledge, and will (First edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jusczyk, P. W. (1997). The discovery of spoken language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
Pacherie, E. (2008). The phenomenology of action: A conceptual framework. Cognition, 107(1), 179–217.
Shepherd, J. (2021). The Shape of Agency: Control, Action, Skill, Knowledge. The Shape of Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thrailkill, E. A., Trask, S., Vidal, P., Alcalá, J. A., & Bouton, M. E. (2018). Stimulus control of actions and habits: A role for reinforcer predictability and attention in the development of habitual behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 44, 370–384.


  1. Of course some actions are more ballistic than others in the sense that there is a smaller role for guidance once the action has begun. ↩︎