Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The detection of causality is essential for our understanding of whether distinct events relate. A central requirement for the sensation of causality is temporal contiguity: As the interval between events increases, causality ratings decrease; for intervals longer than approximately 100 msec, the events start to appear independent. It has been suggested that this effect might be due to perception relying on discrete processing. According to this view, two events may be judged as sequential or simultaneous depending on their temporal relationship within a discrete neuronal process. To assess if alpha oscillations underlie this discrete neuronal process, we investigated how these oscillations modulate the judgment of causality. We used the classic launching effect with concurrent recording of EEG signal. In each trial, a disk moved horizontally toward a second disk at the center of the screen and stopped when they touched each other. After a delay that varied between 0 and 400 msec after contact, the right disk began to move. Participants were instructed to judge whether or not they had a feeling that the first disk caused the movement of the second disk. We found that frontocentral alpha phase significantly biased causality estimates. Moreover, we found that alpha phase was concentrated around different angles for trials in which participants judged events as causally related versus not causally related. We conclude that alpha phase plays a key role in biasing causality judgments.