Multisensory interactions in peripersonal space and their contributions to bodily self-consciousness

What is the relevance of the body and body-transformed sensory information for subjective experience? In the last two decades, paradigms from cognitive neuroscience have demonstrated that the subjective sensations of possessing a body (body ownership, BO), of being located in space (self-location) and being directed at the world (first-person perspective, 1PP), crucially rely on and can be manipulated by exposure to conflicting sensory information in so called bodily illusions. These aspects of subjective experience that are attached to the body, or bodily self-consciousness (BSC), are therefore malleable in healthy participants and accessible to experimental manipulations. BSC is argued to rely on multisensory integration mechanisms within the space directly surrounding the body (i.e. the peripersonal space, PPS). Amply supported by behavioral evidence, data from the brain is sparse. To help elucidate, in terms of neural activity, the relationship between PPS and an aspect of BSC, namely BO, in the first part of my thesis, I will present the results from an fMRI study and a meta-analysis, whereby I globally show that visual and tactile information presented within PPS is processed predominantly within the fronto-parietal and temporo-parietal regions of the brain whereas BO is processed in fronto-parietal and insular regions. Critically, both PPS and BO processing converges only in the left superior parietal cortex (intraparietal sulcus and area 2), thus suggesting both a level of neural integration and dissociation. The subjective 1PP is also argued to rely on multisensory mechanisms and in particular vestibular signals, but the underlying behavioral and neural mechanisms remain largely unexplored. Thus, in the second part of my thesis, I present a behavioral study and a clinical case report. In the prior, we exposed healthy subjects in a supine posture to touch on their backs and synchronous or asynchronous touch on the back of an observed avatar. We further simulated visual gravity using virtual balls falling either in the same or opposite direction with respect to the pull of physical gravity. In line with our expectations, the latter biased the direction of the 1PP to that suggested by the visual gravity (thus subjects reported looking downwards). The visual gravity information also interacted with the synchrony of stroking to affect 1PP and a more frequent downward 1PP was associated with a higher self-elevation rating. Also in line with the idea that BSC and in particular the 1PP relies on multisensory (in particular visuo-vestibular) integration, in the clinical case report we describe a male patient with peripheral vestibulopathy experiencing out-of-body experiences, who fails to integrate visual and vestibular information and is sensitive to visuo-tactile conflicts in bodily illusions. The results from my thesis collectively reinforce the current view that BSC can be manipulated by and thus crucially relies on multisensory mechanisms within PPS as shown both behaviorally for 1PP and in terms of neural correlates for BO. The results also suggest that different combinations of sensory stimuli manipulate most effectively these aspects, with synchronous visuo-tactile stroking affecting BO whereas asynchronous visuo-tactile stroking and vestibular information affecting 1PP. Apprehending better these mechanisms will be an important milestone to understanding how sensory information shapes subjective experience.


  • Thesis submitted - Forthcoming publication

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