Scientists claim to have achieved a significant breakthrough in showing what brain activity looks like when someone anticipates any action.
Writing about their work in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers say that this neural clairvoyance involves strong activity in brain areas that are responsible for preparing the body to move.
They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for their study, which involved a group of students who brought with them their favorite music CDs.
The scientists examined brain images during the silence between songs, and found it brimming with activity.
According to them, the students who listened to music they had never heard in sequence before did not have that same neural bustle.
"This now explains how it is that, even before an anticipated song is actually heard, a person can start to tap fingers, dance, or sing to the music they imagine is coming next," says Dr. Josef Rauschecker, director of the Program in Cognitive and Computational Sciences (PICCS), at Georgetown University Medical Center.
While song sequences can be memorized and anticipated by a listener, says Rauschecker, this is the first time that any research team have documented the brain activity that is underway in the silence between songs.
"The brain is all about anticipation and prediction, yet no one has shown what that looks like in terms of neural action," he says.
He believes that the same process, known as cued associative learning, likely occurs whenever any person expects any particular event to happen, be it in sports, music, or language.
"It is how a skier is mentally prepared to go down a familiar course during the Olympics, or how a piano player knows to move fingers along the keyboard to hit the next correct key," he says.
Though it sounds simple, Rauschecker insists it actually is not.
"It is not trivial to store a temporal sequence in the brain, because the brain doesn't have any moving parts like a tape recorder or CD player. The whole brain needs to be involved because it has to be ready to execute that sequence," he says.
The research team found that, among pupils who knew the order of songs on their CD, excitatory signals passed from the prefrontal cortex to the nearby premotor cortex during the anticipatory silence between the songs.
The prefrontal cortex is the brain's "executive" center that plans and orchestrates complex cognitive behaviors, while the premotor cortex and its associated systems are involved in preparing the body to act, perhaps to move or to sing.
"These structures are involved in both thinking and acting, and it appears that music patterns are being stored and learned here," Rauschecker says.
"We hadn't anticipated that. We didn't know the premotor areas would be involved," he adds.
He further says that all animals have some ability to cognitively predict motor activity.
"That's why a bird can sing. But humans are the most associative of animals, which is why we have such a large prefrontal cortex. We have a lot of sequences that we need to store in order to predict what we should do," he says.