Understanding self-suppression

What is this research about?

Sensory attenuation (a.k.a. ‘self-suppression’) refers to the phenomenon that self-generated sensations tend to feel less salient than externally-generated sensations. A well-known example of sensory attenuation is the fact that it is difficult to tickle oneself.

Sensory attenuation can also be measured using electroencephalography (EEG). Such studies typically investigate the brain activity elicited by self-initiated stimuli (often auditory stimuli) and compare it to the activity elicited by externally-initiated stimuli. These studies have typically reported that self-initiated stimuli evoke less EEG activity than externally-generated stimuli, despite the fact that the stimuli are (often) physically identical.

While the basic phenomenon of sensory attenuation is well established, many outstanding questions remain. For example:

  • How does sensory attenuation influence our sense of agency (i.e., the feeling of being in control of one’s actions).
  • Sensory attenuation has traditionally been investigated (in the EEG at least) in response to auditory sensations. Is sensory attenuation limited to auditory sensations? Or is it present across all sensory modalities (e.g., visual, tactile, etc.).
  • Is a person’s level of sensory attenuation fixed over their lifetime, or is it modifiable with experience? This question is relevant disorders, such as schizophrenia, that are ostensibly associated with abnormalities in sensory attenuation.

By addressing these (and many more) outstanding questions, this project will provide insight into the fundamental nature of sensory attenuation, its significance in determining our sense of agency, and its implications for mental disorders that are often associated with abnormal sense of agency.

Other researchers working on this project
  • Ms Ruth Elijah
  • Dr Mike Le Pelley
  • Dr Oren Griffiths
  • Dr Bradley Jack
  • Mr Nathan Han
  • Mr Sol Libesman
  • Dr Tom Beesley (University of Lancaster, UK)
  • Dr David Luque (University of Malaga, Spain)
  • Dr Tamara Watson (University of Western Sydney)
  • Dr Lena Oestreich (University of Queensland)
  • A/Prof Anthony Harris (University of Sydney)
  • Dr Gethin Hughes (University of Essex, UK)
  • Dr Nathan Mifsud
Publications relating to this project
  • Mifsud NG, Whitford TJ. (2017). Sensory attenuation of self-initiated sounds maps onto habitual associations between motor action and sound. Neuropsychologia, 103, 38-43.
  • Mifsud NG, Beesley T, Watson TL, Whitford TJ. (2016). Attenuation of Auditory Evoked Potentials for Hand and Eye-Initiated Sounds. Biological Psychology, 120, 61-68
  • Elijah RB, Le Pelley ME, Whitford TJ. (2016). Modifying Temporal Expectations: Changing Cortical Responsivity to Delayed Self-Initiated Sensations with Training. Biological Psychology, 120, 88-95.
  • Griffiths O, Le Pelley ME, Jack BN, Luque D, Whitford TJ. (2016). Cross-modal symbolic processing can elicit either an N2 or a protracted N2/N400 response. Psychophysiology, 53, 1044-1053. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12649.
  • Mifsud NG, Oestreich, LKL, Jack BN, Ford JM, Roach BJ, Mathalon DH, Whitford TJ. (2016). Self-initiated actions result in suppressed auditory but amplified visual evoked components in healthy participants. Psychophysiology, 53, 723-32.
Research funding
  • 2014-2017: Whitford TJ, Le Pelley M, Luque, D. Understanding prediction errors: interrogating the brain's lingua franca. Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project, DP140104394. AU$346,000