A Bayesian perceptual model replicates the cutaneous rabbit and other tactile spatiotemporal illusions

PLoS One. 2007 Mar 28;2(3):e333. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000333.


Background: When brief stimuli contact the skin in rapid succession at two or more locations, perception strikingly shrinks the intervening distance, and expands the elapsed time, between consecutive events. The origins of these perceptual space-time distortions are unknown.

Methodology/principal findings: Here I show that these illusory effects, which I term perceptual length contraction and time dilation, are emergent properties of a Bayesian observer model that incorporates prior expectation for speed. Rapidly moving stimuli violate expectation, provoking perceptual length contraction and time dilation. The Bayesian observer replicates the cutaneous rabbit illusion, the tau effect, the kappa effect, and other spatiotemporal illusions. Additionally, it shows realistic tactile temporal order judgment and spatial attention effects.

Conclusions/significance: The remarkable explanatory power of this simple model supports the hypothesis, first proposed by Helmholtz, that the brain biases perception in favor of expectation. Specifically, the results suggest that the brain automatically incorporates prior expectation for speed in order to overcome spatial and temporal imprecision inherent in the sensorineural signal.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bayes Theorem*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Feedback, Sensory
  • Illusions*
  • Judgment
  • Perception*
  • Rabbits
  • Skin Physiological Phenomena
  • Time Factors
  • Touch*