Beyond sensory substitution--learning the sixth sense

J Neural Eng. 2005 Dec;2(4):R13-26. doi: 10.1088/1741-2560/2/4/R02. Epub 2005 Nov 29.


Rapid advances in neuroscience have sparked numerous efforts to study the neural correlate of consciousness. Prominent subjects include higher sensory area, distributed assemblies bound by synchronization of neuronal activity and neurons in specific cortical laminae. In contrast, it has been suggested that the quality of sensory awareness is determined by systematic change of afferent signals resulting from behaviour and knowledge thereof. Support for such skill-based theories of perception is provided by experiments on sensory substitution. Here, we pursue this line of thought and create new sensorimotor contingencies and, hence, a new quality of perception. Adult subjects received orientation information, obtained by a magnetic compass, via vibrotactile stimulation around the waist. After six weeks of training we evaluated integration of the new input by a battery of tests. The results indicate that the sensory information provided by the belt (1) is processed and boosts performance, (2) if inconsistent with other sensory signals leads to variable performance, (3) does interact with the vestibular nystagmus and (4) in half of the experimental subjects leads to qualitative changes of sensory experience. These data support the hypothesis that new sensorimotor contingencies can be learned and integrated into behaviour and affect perceptual experience.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetics
  • Middle Aged
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibration