Simulated self-motion in a visual gravity field: Sensitivity to vertical and horizontal heading in the human brain

Iole Indovina, Vincenzo Maffei, Karl Pauwels, Emiliano Macaluso, Guy A. Orban, Francesco Lacquaniti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Multiple visual signals are relevant to perception of heading direction. While the role of optic flow and depth cues has been studied extensively, little is known about the visual effects of gravity on heading perception. We used fMRI to investigate the contribution of gravity-related visual cues on the processing of vertical versus horizontal apparent self-motion. Participants experienced virtual roller-coaster rides in different scenarios, at constant speed or 1g-acceleration/deceleration. Imaging results showed that vertical self-motion coherent with gravity engaged the posterior insula and other brain regions that have been previously associated with vertical object motion under gravity. This selective pattern of activation was also found in a second experiment that included rectilinear motion in tunnels, whose direction was cued by the preceding open-air curves only. We argue that the posterior insula might perform high-order computations on visual motion patterns, combining different sensory cues and prior information about the effects of gravity. Medial-temporal regions including para-hippocampus and hippocampus were more activated by horizontal motion, preferably at constant speed, consistent with a role in inertial navigation. Overall, the results suggest partially distinct neural representations of the cardinal axes of self-motion (horizontal and vertical).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)114-124
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - May 1 2013


  • FMRI
  • Heading
  • Hippocampus
  • Horizontal
  • Insula
  • Vertical

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology


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