Making Sense of the Body: the Role of Vestibular Signals

in Multisensory Research
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The role of the vestibular system in posture and eye movement control has been extensively described. By contrast, how vestibular signals contribute to bodily perceptions is a more recent research area in the field of cognitive neuroscience. In the present review article, I will summarize recent findings showing that vestibular signals play a crucial role in making sense of the body. First, data will be presented showing that vestibular signals contribute to bodily perceptions ranging from low-level bodily perceptions, such as touch, pain, and the processing of the body’s metric properties, to higher level bodily perceptions, such as the sense of owning a body, the sense of being located within this body (embodiment), and the anchoring of the visuo-spatial perspective to this body. In the second part of the review article, I will show that vestibular information seems to be crucially involved in the visual perception of biological motion and in the visual perception of human body structure. Reciprocally, observing human bodies in motion influences vestibular self-motion perception, presumably due to sensorimotor resonance between the self and others. I will argue that recent advances in the mapping of the human vestibular cortex afford neuroscientific models of the vestibular contributions to human bodily self-consciousness.

Making Sense of the Body: the Role of Vestibular Signals

in Multisensory Research



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    Methods to create illusory ownership of a rubber hand. (A) In the visual variant of the rubber hand illusion, participants observe a rubber hand (RH) placed in front of them while their physical hand (PH) is hidden. The synchronous application of a tactile stimulation on the rubber and physical hands (using two similar paintbrushes) can evoke the sensation that the rubber hand feels like the participant’s own hand (Lopez et al., 2010b). (B) In the non-visual variant of the rubber hand illusion, the experimenter moves the participant’s right hand to touch the rubber hand (RH) while at the same time the experimenter applies a tactile stimulation on the participant’s left physical hand (PH). Participants report that it feels as if they were touching their left hand (instead of the rubber hand) with their right index finger and that it seems like the rubber hand belonged to them (Lopez et al., 2012a).

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    Influence of gravity and the observer’s body position on the visual perception of human body postures. (A) Visual stimuli are pictures representing a human body seen from the back and tilted either to the right or to the left on a platform. (B) Observers were tested upright and lying right side down. For each orientation of the observer, all visual stimuli were presented in four orientations with respect to gravity: upright, upside down, and rotated by 90° clockwise (CW) and counterclockwise (CCW). (C) Mean percentage of postures perceived as unstable is shown as a function of the amplitude and direction of the human body roll: leftward roll (blue curves) vs. rightward roll (red curves); roll with respect to the platform. Histograms in the inserts represent the mean point of subjective instability (PSI). Data are presented for only two orientations of the platform (upright and 90° CCW). Detailed results can be found in Lopez et al. (2009). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Examples of visual stimuli used during mental imagery tasks combined with vestibular stimulation. For the first three visual stimuli, participants indicated as fast and accurately as possible whether the extended arm or colored hand (for the bodies) or leaf (for the plant) was a left or right one. For the fourth stimulus, participants indicated which direction was east on a view of a cockpit according to the position of the plane on a map. For the fifth stimulus, participants realized mental rotation of letters and decided whether a presented letter matched the result of the mental rotation. Arrows indicate increase or decrease in response time (RT) or error rate (ER) as a result of vestibular stimulation (CVS: caloric vestibular stimulation, GVS: galvanic vestibular stimulation). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Influence of the observation of self and other whole-body motion on vestibular perception. (A) Full-body motion platform used to measure self-motion perception. Participants were rotated to their right or left side for 5 s (at 0.1°/s, 0.6°/s, 1.1°/s, and 4°/s) and were asked to detect as fast as possible the direction of the rotation. (B) Participants were shown self and other videos in a head-mounted display. During congruent trials the participant and the object depicted in the video were rotated in the same direction (specular congruency). (C) The graph illustrates the magnitude of the congruency effect for each participant (depicted by a dot) for the observation of self and other videos. The congruency effect has been calculated as the difference in response time between the congruent trials (the participant is passively rotated on the full-body motion platform to one side and the body depicted in the video rotates in a congruent, specular, way) and the incongruent trials. Squares represent the average congruency effect for self and other videos. (D) The congruency effect was positively correlated with the subscale ‘emotional reactivity’ of the empathy quotient for the observation of other videos, but not for the observation of self-videos. Adapted from Lopez et al. (2013). This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Reciprocal relations between vestibular perception and visual perception of human bodies. Integration of visual and vestibular signals throughout the vestibulo-thalamo-cortical pathways may underpin the reciprocal relations between vestibular and visual perception. This figure also illustrates the connections between vestibular processing and social cognition, a research area that needs to be developed. This figure is published in color in the online version.


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