Touch is unique among the sensory modalities in that our tactile receptors are spread across the body surface and continuously receive different inputs at the same time. These inputs vary in type, properties, relevance according to current goals, and, of course, location on the body. Sometimes, they must be integrated, and other times set apart and distinguished. Here, we investigate how simultaneous stimulation to different body sites affects tactile cognition. Specifically, we characterized the impact of irrelevant tactile sensations on tactile change detection. To this end, we embedded detection targets amidst ongoing performance, akin to the conditions encountered in everyday life, where we are constantly confronted with new events within ongoing stimuli. In the set of experiments presented here, participants detected a brief intensity change (.04 s) within an ongoing vibrotactile stimulus (1.6 s) that was always presented in a constantly attended location. The intensity change (i.e., the detection target) varied parametrically, from hardly detectable to easily detectable. In half of the trials, irrelevant ongoing stimulation was simultaneously presented to a site across the body midline, but participants were instructed to ignore it. In line with previous bimanual studies employing brief onset targets, we document robust interference on performance due to the irrelevant stimulation at each of the measured body sites (homologous and nonhomologous fingers, and the contralateral ankle). After describing this basic phenomenon, we further examine the conditions under which such interference occurs in three additional tasks. In each task, we honed in on a different aspect of the stimulation protocol (e.g., hand distance, the strength of the irrelevant stimulation, the detection target itself) in order to better understand the principles governing the observed interference effects. Our findings suggest a minimal role for exogenous attentional capture in producing the observed interference effects (Exp. 2), and a principled distribution of attentional resources or sensory integration between body sides (Exps. 3, 4). In our last study (Exp. 4), we presented bilateral tactile targets of varying intensities to both the relevant and irrelevant stimulation sites. We then characterized the degree to which the irrelevant stimulation is also processed. Our results—that participants’ perception of target intensity is always proportional to the combined bilateral signal—suggest that both body sites are equally weighed and processed despite clear instructions to attend only the target site. In light of this observation and participants’ inability to use selection processes to guide their perception, we propose that bilateral tactile inputs are automatically combined, quite possibly early in the hierarchy of somatosensory processing.
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© 2023, The Author(s).
- Change detection
- Tactile detection