Somatosensory illusions elicited by sham electromagnetic field exposure: experimental evidence for a predictive processing account of somatic symptom perception

Psychosom Med. 2020 Nov 2. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000884. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Objective: According to the predictive processing theory of somatic symptom generation, body sensations are determined by somatosensory input and central nervous predictions about this input. We examined how expectations shape predictions and consequently bodily perceptions in a task eliciting illusory sensations as laboratory analogue of medically unexplained symptoms.

Methods: Using the framework of signal detection theory, the influence of sham Wi-Fi on (i) response bias (c) and (ii) somatosensory sensitivity (d') for tactile stimuli was examined using the somatic signal detection task (SSDT). A healthy student sample (n = 83) completed the SSDT twice (sham Wi-Fi on/off) in a randomized order after watching a film that promoted adverse health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF).

Results: When expecting a Wi-Fi signal to be present, participants showed a significantly more liberal response bias c (p = .010, ηp = .08) for tactile stimuli in the SSDT as evidence of a higher propensity to experience somatosensory illusions. No significant alteration of somatosensory sensitivity d' (p = .76, ηp < .002) was observed.

Conclusions: Negative expectations about the harmfulness of EMF may foster the occurrence of illusory symptom perceptions via alterations in the somatosensory decision criterion. The findings are in line with central tenets of the predictive processing account of somatic symptom generation. This account proposes a decoupling of percept and somatosensory input so that perception becomes increasingly dependent on predictions. This biased perception is regarded as a risk factor for somatic symptom disorders.