Early Behavioural Facilitation by Temporal Expectations in Complex Visual-motor Sequences

Simone G. Heideman*, Freek van Ede, Anna C. Nobre

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In daily life, temporal expectations may derive from incidental learning of recurring patterns of intervals. We investigated the incidental acquisition and utilisation of combined temporal-ordinal (spatial/effector) structure in complex visual-motor sequences using a modified version of a serial reaction time (SRT) task. In this task, not only the series of targets/responses, but also the series of intervals between subsequent targets was repeated across multiple presentations of the same sequence. Each participant completed three sessions. In the first session, only the repeating sequence was presented. During the second and third session, occasional probe blocks were presented, where a new (unlearned) spatial-temporal sequence was introduced. We first confirm that participants not only got faster over time, but that they were slower and less accurate during probe blocks, indicating that they incidentally learned the sequence structure. Having established a robust behavioural benefit induced by the repeating spatial-temporal sequence, we next addressed our central hypothesis that implicit temporal orienting (evoked by the learned temporal structure) would have the largest influence on performance for targets following short (as opposed to longer) intervals between temporally structured sequence elements, paralleling classical observations in tasks using explicit temporal cues. We found that indeed, reaction time differences between new and repeated sequences were largest for the short interval, compared to the medium and long intervals, and that this was the case, even when comparing late blocks (where the repeated sequence had been incidentally learned), to early blocks (where this sequence was still unfamiliar). We conclude that incidentally acquired temporal expectations that follow a sequential structure can have a robust facilitatory influence on visually-guided behavioural responses and that, like more explicit forms of temporal orienting, this effect is most pronounced for sequence elements that are expected at short inter-element intervals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-84
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018
Externally publishedYes


SGH and ACN were supported by the MRC/EPSRC UK MEG Partnership award ( MR/K005464/1 ) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre based at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust ( oxfbrc-2012-1 ). ACN additionally was supported by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award ( 104571/Z/14/Z ). FvE was supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship ( 655374 ) from the European Commission.

FundersFunder number
Wellcome Trust104571/Z/14/Z
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme
H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions655374
Medical Research Council
National Institute for Health and Care Researchoxfbrc-2012-1
European Commission


    • Attention
    • Expectation
    • Sequential learning
    • Serial reaction time task
    • Spatial orienting
    • Temporal orienting


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