Should I stay or should I go? Conceptual underpinnings of goal-directed actions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


All actions, even the simplest like moving an arm to grasp a pen, are associated with energy costs. Thus all mobile organisms possess the ability to evaluate resources and select those behaviors that are most likely to lead to the greatest accrual of valuable items (reward) in the near or, especially in the case of humans, distant future. The evaluation process is performed at all possible stages of the series of decisions that lead to the building of a goal-directed action or to its suppression. This is because all animals have a limited amount of energy and resources; to survive and be able to reproduce they have to minimize the costs and maximize the outcomes of their actions. These computations are at the root of behavioral flexibility. Two executive functions play a major role in generating flexible behaviors: (i) the ability to predict future outcomes of goal-directed actions; and (ii) the ability to cancel them when they are unlikely to accomplish valuable results. These two processes operate continuously during the entire course of a movement: During its genesis, its planning and even its execution, so that the motor output can be modulated or suppressed at any time before its execution. In this review, functional interactions of the extended neural network subserving generation and inhibition of goal-directed movements will be outlined, leading to the intriguing hypothesis that the performance of actions and their suppression are not specified by independent sets of brain regions. Rather, it will be proposed that acting and stopping are functions emerging from specific interactions between largely overlapping brain regions, whose activity is intimately linked (directly or indirectly) to the evaluations of pros and cons of an action. Such mechanism would allow the brain to perform as a highly efficient and flexible system, as different functions could be computed exploiting the same components operating in different configurations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number206
JournalFrontiers in Systems Neuroscience
Issue numberNovember
Publication statusPublished - Nov 3 2014


  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Countermanding task
  • Decision-making
  • Reaching arm movements
  • Reward
  • Voluntary motor control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Developmental Neuroscience

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