Unconscious integration of multisensory bodily inputs in the peripersonal space shapes bodily self-consciousness


Recent studies have highlighted the role of multisensory integration as a key mechanism of self-consciousness. In particular, integration of bodily signals within the peripersonal space (PPS) underlies the experience of the self in a body we own (self-identification) and that is experienced as occupying a specific location in space (self-location), two main components of bodily self-consciousness (BSC). Experiments investigating the effects of multisensory integration on BSC have typically employed supra-threshold sensory stimuli, neglecting the role of unconscious sensory signals in BSC, as tested in other consciousness research. Here, we used psychophysical techniques to test whether multisensory integration of bodily stimuli underlying BSC also occurs for multisensory inputs presented below the threshold of conscious perception. Our results indicate that visual stimuli rendered invisible through continuous flash suppression boost processing of tactile stimuli on the body (Exp. 1), and enhance the perception of near-threshold tactile stimuli (Exp. 2), only once they entered PPS. We then employed unconscious multisensory stimulation to manipulate BSC. Participants were presented with tactile stimulation on their body and with visual stimuli on a virtual body, seen at a distance, which were either visible or rendered invisible. We found that participants reported higher self-identification with the virtual body in the synchronous visuo-tactile stimulation (as compared to asynchronous stimulation; Exp. 3), and shifted their self-location toward the virtual body (Exp.4), even if stimuli were fully invisible. Our results indicate that multisensory inputs, even outside of awareness, are integrated and affect the phenomenological content of self-consciousness, grounding BSC firmly in the field of psychophysical consciousness studies.