Our brains are constantly preparing for action

I've already introduced you to the behavioural model of BJ Fogg from Stanford University, which explains the determinants of action. According to him, in order to take action, three ingredients must be present at the same time: motivation, a sense of capacity and a trigger. In this article, I propose to return to the notion of trigger.
The trigger can be internal (for example: a thought, a physical sensation) or external (a note seen, a name heard or a situation encountered). In all cases, to be effective (i.e. processed by our cognitive system) it needs to be the center of our attention for a few moments. This is the first condition to trigger a voluntary movement.

Brain-wise, what leads us to perform an action? What is the role of the trigger? How does its perception produce the activation of the motor cortex to the point of provoking a real action?

I propose to answer these questions thanks to the work of Paul Cisek, a researcher at the University of Montreal and an expert on the brain mechanisms involved in decision-making and planning of voluntary movements.

Step 1: the attentional focus

We need to focus our attention to perceive the trigger.

Our brain is not capable of processing an entire scene instantaneously. In fact, in order to understand our environment, we need to continually "focus attention" on the different elements that make up the scene. This is done through attention. The main function of attention is to sort through the multitude of information we perceive (Léger, 2016): attention, as a cognitive process, allows us to select a part of this field that will then be processed by the brain, while inhibiting irrelevant information.

To make it clear, let me give you an example. At work, when you focus on a task, you only cognitively process elements related to that task. You therefore focus your attention. Let's say that as you progress through this task, you perceive a blocking point that requires you to ask a question to a colleague. This is a trigger, capable of initiating the course of action.

Step 2: preparation of actions

Our cortex identifies and prepares a set of possible behaviours.

It is only according to what we perceive of the environment (i.e. the opportunities for action it presents) that our brain will prepare for action. This step of preparing the action is essential since it will allow the brain to specify all possible actions following the perception of the trigger. Thus, in reality, the brain prepares several possible actions.
In other words, following the perception of an object or a situation (i.e. the trigger), we prepare at the same time all the behaviours we could adopt in response to this context: the (representation of) different possible actions materialize in our brain by the simultaneous activation of different populations of neurons. Warning: all this happens very quickly, without our being aware of it. This is what Paul Cisek observes by brain imaging. He concludes that a competition by reciprocal inhibition between different actions (i.e. different populations of neurons) systematically takes place in our brain before the action.

Let's go back to our example: the encounter of a blocking point (combined with sufficient motivation and a feeling of adequate capacity) pushes you to really ask for help from a collaborator (i.e. the target action). However, there are several options available to you:

  • you can go down to his office and question him in person,
  • you can write him an email describing your problem and then clearly asking for the information you are missing,
  • or you can call him on the phone and explain things in person.

According to Paul Cisek, these three behavioural options would be considered at exactly the same time in the brain, causing the activation of different populations of neurons. And for an action to be taken for real, one of the neuron populations must be a win-win situation, in the sense that its activation continues until the motor command is sent (while the activity of the others stops abruptly).

Step 3: winning an action

Our cortex chooses an action that will actually be taken.

This arbitration is synonymous with selection, since it requires a decision. And this decision is based on certain elements, in a more or less conscious way.
According to Paul Cisek, the selection of the winning action is made through the intervention of different cognitive processes. Depending on our past behaviour, therefore our experience, the relevance of the action, the probability of success, or our emotions, we are likely to adapt our considerations, therefore the final arbitration.

In our situation, even if you are not used to calling our staff, you know that a face-to-face conversation will allow you to have a quicker or even immediate response (relevance of the action +). Also, being shy by nature, it is much easier for you to call than to go and see your colleague face-to-face (probability of success +). You will therefore choose the third option which will lead to the abandonment of the other two options at the neural level.
I would like to specify that this type of reflection is not necessarily conscious and more or less fast, depending on the time available. And we have to keep in mind that everything happens in real time so we have to re-evaluate our action, or correct it. Thus, this 3-step process is continuously at work (again we focus our attention, then the potential actions become active and compete, which leads us to make a selection).

Take home message

It is important to remember that the brain is continually preparing itself to act, based on what it perceives of the environment (and situations). For example, the simple act of looking at a pen will activate our motor cortex to prepare for action (the movement of our hand) by activating different populations of neurons capable of provoking different seizures.
Only one action will eventually be performed. It is possible to orient the final arbitration of the cortex by modifying the architecture of choice: this is what nudges do, subtle incentives that allow us to orient the individual in his choice of action, encouraging him to make the best decision.


Fifty, the leader in e-doing, helps employees to act in training or company transformation contexts. With a tool that combines behavioural sciences and a learning algorithm, Fifty helps employees in work situations to select the best action.