Somatosensory-visual effects in visual biological motion perception


Social cognition is dependent on the ability to extract information from human stimuli. Of those, patterns of biological motion (BM) and in particular walking patterns of other humans, are prime examples. Although most often tested in isolation, BM outside the laboratory is often associated with multisensory cues (i.e. we often hear and see someone walking) and there is evidence that vision-based judgments of BM stimuli are systematically influenced by motor signals. Furthermore, cross-modal visuo-tactile mechanisms have been shown to influence perception of bodily stimuli. Based on these observations, we here investigated if somatosensory inputs would affect visual BM perception. In two experiments, we asked healthy participants to perform a speed discrimination task on two point light walkers (PLW) presented one after the other. In the first experiment, we quantified somatosensory-visual interactions by presenting PLW together with tactile stimuli either on the participants’ forearms or feet soles. In the second experiment, we assessed the specificity of these interactions by presenting tactile stimuli either synchronously or asynchronously with upright or inverted PLW. Our results confirm that somatosensory input in the form of tactile foot stimulation influences visual BM perception. When presented with a seen walker’s footsteps, additional tactile cues enhanced sensitivity on a speed discrimination task, but only if the tactile stimuli were presented on the relevant body-part (under the feet) and when the tactile stimuli were presented synchronously with the seen footsteps of the PLW, whether upright or inverted. Based on these findings we discuss potential mechanisms of somatosensory-visual interactions in BM perception.