Rolling motion along an incline: Visual sensitivity to the relation between acceleration and slope

Francesca Ceccarelli, Barbara La Scaleia, Marta Russo, Benedetta Cesqui, Silvio Gravano, Maura Mezzetti, Alessandro Moscatelli, Andrea d'Avella, Francesco Lacquaniti, Myrka Zago

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People easily intercept a ball rolling down an incline, despite its acceleration varies with the slope in a complex manner. Apparently, however, they are poor at detecting anomalies when asked to judge artificial animations of descending motion. Since the perceptual deficiencies have been reported in studies involving a limited visual context, here we tested the hypothesis that judgments of naturalness of rolling motion are consistent with physics when the visual scene incorporates sufficient cues about environmental reference and metric scale, roughly comparable to those present when intercepting a ball. Participants viewed a sphere rolling down an incline located in the median sagittal plane, presented in 3D wide-field virtual reality. In different experiments, either the slope of the plane or the sphere acceleration were changed in arbitrary combinations, resulting in a kinematics that was either consistent or inconsistent with physics. In Experiment 1 (slope adjustment), participants were asked to modify the slope angle until the resulting motion looked natural for a given ball acceleration. In Experiment 2 (acceleration adjustment), instead, they were asked to modify the acceleration until the motion on a given slope looked natural. No feedback about performance was provided. For both experiments, we found that participants were rather accurate at finding the match between slope angle and ball acceleration congruent with physics, but there was a systematic effect of the initial conditions: accuracy was higher when the participants started the exploration from the combination of slope and acceleration corresponding to the congruent conditions than when they started far away from the congruent conditions. In Experiment 3, participants modified the slope angle based on an adaptive staircase, but the target never coincided with the starting condition. Here we found a generally accurate performance, irrespective of the target slope. We suggest that, provided the visual scene includes sufficient cues about environmental reference and metric scale, joint processing of slope and acceleration may facilitate the detection of natural motion. Perception of rolling motion may rely on the kind of approximate, probabilistic simulations of Newtonian mechanics that have previously been called into play to explain complex inferences in rich visual scenes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number406
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberJUN
Publication statusPublished - Jun 22 2018


  • Bayesian
  • Gravity
  • Internal models
  • Mental simulations
  • Virtual reality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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