Decoding hierarchical control of sequential behavior in oscillatory EEG activity

  1. Atsushi Kikumoto
  2. Ulrich Mayr  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of Oregon, United States


Despite strong theoretical reasons for assuming that abstract representations organize complex action sequences in terms of subplans (chunks) and sequential positions, we lack methods to directly track such content-independent, hierarchical representations in humans. We applied time-resolved, multivariate decoding analysis to the pattern of rhythmic EEG activity that was registered while participants planned and executed individual elements from pre-learned, structured sequences. Across three experiments, the theta and alpha-band activity coded basic elements and abstract control representations, in particular the ordinal position of basic elements, but also the identity and position of chunks. Further, a robust representation of higher-level, chunk identity information was only found in individuals with above-median working memory capacity, potentially providing a neural-level explanation for working-memory differences in sequential performance. Our results suggest that by decoding oscillatory activity we can track how the cognitive system traverses through the states of a hierarchical control structure.

Data availability

All data and analysis scripts have been deposited at OSF (

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Atsushi Kikumoto

    Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  2. Ulrich Mayr

    Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-7512-4556


National Science Foundation (1734264)

  • Ulrich Mayr

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: We obtained informed consent from human subjects. Consent and study procedures were approved by the University of Oregon's Human Subjects Institutional Review Board (Protocol 10272010.016).

Reviewing Editor

  1. David Badre, Brown University, United States

Version history

  1. Received: May 22, 2018
  2. Accepted: November 8, 2018
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: November 14, 2018 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: November 27, 2018 (version 2)


© 2018, Kikumoto & Mayr

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Atsushi Kikumoto
  2. Ulrich Mayr
Decoding hierarchical control of sequential behavior in oscillatory EEG activity
eLife 7:e38550.

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