KEY POINTS: It is known that interception of targets accelerated by gravity involves internal models coupled with visual signals. Nonvisual signals related to head and body orientation relative to gravity may also contribute, but their role is poorly understood. In a novel experiment, we asked pitched observers to hit a virtual target approaching with an acceleration that was either coherent or incoherent with their pitch-tilt. Initially, the timing errors were large and independent of the coherence between target acceleration and observer's pitch. With practice, however, the timing errors became substantially smaller in the coherent conditions. The results show that information about head and body orientation can contribute to modeling the effects of gravity on a moving target. Orientation cues from vestibular and somatosensory signals might be integrated with visual signals in the vestibular cortex, where the internal model of gravity is thought to be encoded.
ABSTRACT: Interception of moving targets relies on visual signals and internal models. Less is known about the additional contribution of nonvisual cues about head and body orientation relative to gravity. We took advantage of Galileo's law of motion along an incline to demonstrate the effects of vestibular and somatosensory cues about head and body orientation on interception timing. Participants were asked to hit a ball rolling in a gutter towards the eyes, resulting in image expansion. The scene was presented in a head-mounted display, without any visual information about gravity direction. In separate blocks of trials participants were pitched backwards by 20° or 60°, while ball acceleration was randomized across trials so as to be compatible with rolling down a slope of 20° or 60°. Initially, the timing errors were large, independently of the coherence between ball acceleration and pitch angle, consistent with responses based exclusively on visual information since visual stimuli were identical at both tilts. At the end of the experiment, however, the timing errors were systematically smaller in the coherent conditions than the incoherent ones. Moreover, the responses were significantly (P = 0.007) earlier when participants were pitched by 60° than when they were pitched by 20°. Therefore, practice with the task led to incorporation of information about head and body orientation relative to gravity for response timing. Instead, posture did not affect response timing in a control experiment in which participants hit a static target in synchrony with the last of a predictable series of stationary audio-visual stimuli. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.