Causal Inference Accounts for Heading Perception in the Presence of Object Motion

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Apr 30;116(18):9060-9065. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1820373116. Epub 2019 Apr 17.


The brain infers our spatial orientation and properties of the world from ambiguous and noisy sensory cues. Judging self-motion (heading) in the presence of independently moving objects poses a challenging inference problem because the image motion of an object could be attributed to movement of the object, self-motion, or some combination of the two. We test whether perception of heading and object motion follows predictions of a normative causal inference framework. In a dual-report task, subjects indicated whether an object appeared stationary or moving in the virtual world, while simultaneously judging their heading. Consistent with causal inference predictions, the proportion of object stationarity reports, as well as the accuracy and precision of heading judgments, depended on the speed of object motion. Critically, biases in perceived heading declined when the object was perceived to be moving in the world. Our findings suggest that the brain interprets object motion and self-motion using a causal inference framework.

Keywords: causal inference; heading; multisensory; object motion; optic flow.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Motion
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*