Characterization of sensory-motor behavior under cognitive load using a new statistical platform for studies of embodied cognition

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The field of enacted/embodied cognition has emerged as a contemporary attempt to connect the mind and body in the study of cognition. However, there has been a paucity of methods that enable a multi-layered approach tapping into different levels of functionality within the nervous systems (e.g., continuously capturing in tandem multi-modal biophysical signals in naturalistic settings). The present study introduces a new theoretical and statistical framework to characterize the influences of cognitive demands on biophysical rhythmic signals harnessed from deliberate, spontaneous and autonomic activities. In this study, nine participants performed a basic pointing task to communicate a decision while they were exposed to different levels of cognitive load. Within these decision-making contexts, we examined the moment-by-moment fluctuations in the peak amplitude and timing of the biophysical time series data (e.g., continuous waveforms extracted from hand kinematics and heart signals). These spike-trains data offered high statistical power for personalized empirical statistical estimation and were well-characterized by a Gamma process. Our approach enabled the identification of different empirically estimated families of probability distributions to facilitate inference regarding the continuous physiological phenomena underlying cognitively driven decision-making. We found that the same pointing task revealed shifts in the probability distribution functions (PDFs) of the hand kinematic signals under study and were accompanied by shifts in the signatures of the heart inter-beat-interval timings. Within the time scale of an experimental session, marked changes in skewness and dispersion of the distributions were tracked on the Gamma parameter plane with 95% confidence. The results suggest that traditional theoretical assumptions of stationarity and normality in biophysical data from the nervous systems are incongruent with the true statistical nature of empirical data. This work offers a unifying platform for personalized statistical inference that goes far beyond those used in conventional studies, often assuming a “one size fits all model” on data drawn from discrete events such as mouse clicks, and observations that leave out continuously co-occurring spontaneous activity taking place largely beneath awareness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Apr 6 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Cognitive load
  • Embodied cognition
  • Heart rate variability
  • Pointing movements
  • Sensory-motor integration
  • Stochastic processes


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