The human brain is able to predict the sensory effects of its actions. But how precise are these predictions? The present research proposes a tool to measure thresholds between a simple action (keystroke) and a resulting sound. On each trial, participants were required to press a key. Upon each keystroke, a woodblock sound was presented. In some trials, the sound came immediately with the downward keystroke; at other times, it was delayed by a varying amount of time. Participants were asked to verbally report whether the sound came immediately or was delayed. Participants' delay detection thresholds (in msec) were measured with a staircase-like procedure. We hypothesised that musicians would have a lower threshold than non-musicians. Comparing pianists and brass players, we furthermore hypothesised that, as a result of a sharper attack of the timbre of their instrument, pianists might have lower thresholds than brass players. Our results show that non-musicians exhibited higher thresholds for delay detection (180±104 ms) than the two groups of musicians (102±65 ms), but there were no differences between pianists and brass players. The variance in delay detection thresholds could be explained by variance in sensorimotor synchronisation capacities as well as variance in a purely auditory temporal irregularity detection measure. This suggests that the brain's capacity to generate temporal predictions of sensory consequences can be decomposed into general temporal prediction capacities together with auditory-motor coupling. These findings indicate that the brain has a relatively large window of integration within which an action and its resulting effect are judged as simultaneous. Furthermore, musical expertise may narrow this window down, potentially due to a more refined temporal prediction. This novel paradigm provides a simple test to estimate the temporal precision of auditory-motor action-effect coupling, and the paradigm can readily be incorporated in studies investigating both healthy and patient populations. © 2014 van Vugt, Tillmann.
Van Vugt, F. T., & Tillmann, B. (2014). Thresholds of auditory-motor coupling measured with a simple task in musicians and non-musicians: Was the sound simultaneous to the key press? PLoS ONE, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0087176