Humans use internal models to estimate gravity and linear acceleration

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Abstract

Because sensory systems often provide ambiguous information, neural processes must exist to resolve these ambiguities.It is likely that similar neural processes are used by different sensory systems. For example, many tasks require neural processing to distinguish linear acceleration from gravity [1], but Einstein's equivalence principle states that all linear accelerometers must measure both linear acceleration and gravity. Here we investigate whether the brain uses internal models, defined as neural systems that mimic physical principles, to help estimate linear acceleration and gravity [2-4]. Internal models may be used in motor control [5-7], sensorimotor integration [8-10] and sensory processing [11-14], but direct experimental evidence for such models is limited. To determine how humans process ambiguous gravity and linear acceleration cues, subjects were tilted after being rotated at a constant velocity about an Earth-vertical axis. We show that the eye movements evoked by this post-rotational tilt include a response component that compensates for the estimated linear acceleration even when no actual linear acceleration occurs. These measured responses are consistent with our internal model predictions that the nervous system can develop a non-zero estimate of linear acceleration even when no true linear acceleration is present.

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