Tactile length contraction as Bayesian inference

J Neurophysiol. 2016 Aug 1;116(2):369-79. doi: 10.1152/jn.00029.2016. Epub 2016 Apr 27.


To perceive, the brain must interpret stimulus-evoked neural activity. This is challenging: The stochastic nature of the neural response renders its interpretation inherently uncertain. Perception would be optimized if the brain used Bayesian inference to interpret inputs in light of expectations derived from experience. Bayesian inference would improve perception on average but cause illusions when stimuli violate expectation. Intriguingly, tactile, auditory, and visual perception are all prone to length contraction illusions, characterized by the dramatic underestimation of the distance between punctate stimuli delivered in rapid succession; the origin of these illusions has been mysterious. We previously proposed that length contraction illusions occur because the brain interprets punctate stimulus sequences using Bayesian inference with a low-velocity expectation. A novel prediction of our Bayesian observer model is that length contraction should intensify if stimuli are made more difficult to localize. Here we report a tactile psychophysical study that tested this prediction. Twenty humans compared two distances on the forearm: a fixed reference distance defined by two taps with 1-s temporal separation and an adjustable comparison distance defined by two taps with temporal separation t ≤ 1 s. We observed significant length contraction: As t was decreased, participants perceived the two distances as equal only when the comparison distance was made progressively greater than the reference distance. Furthermore, the use of weaker taps significantly enhanced participants' length contraction. These findings confirm the model's predictions, supporting the view that the spatiotemporal percept is a best estimate resulting from a Bayesian inference process.

Keywords: Bayesian inference; sensory saltation; somatosensory psychophysics; spatial illusion; uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Afferent Pathways / physiology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Bayes Theorem*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Forearm / innervation
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Psychophysics
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Young Adult