Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Recent experiments have shown that the visual channel of balance control is susceptible to cognitive influence. When a subject is aware that an upcoming visual disturbance is likely to arise from an external agent, that is, movement of the visual environment, rather than from self-motion, the whole-body response is suppressed. Here we ask whether this is a principle that generalizes to the vestibular channel of balance control. We studied the whole-body response to a pure vestibular perturbation produced by galvanic vestibular stimulation (GVS; 0.5 mA for 3 sec). In the first experiment, subjects stood with vision occluded while stimuli were delivered either by the subject himself (self-triggered) or by the experimenter. For the latter, the stimulus was delivered either without warning (unpredictable) or at a fixed interval following an auditory cue (predictable). Results showed that GVS evoked a whole-body response that was not affected by whether the stimulus was self-triggered, predictable, or unpredictable. The same results were obtained in a second experiment in which subjects had access to visual information during vestibular stimulation. We conclude that the vestibular-evoked balance response is automatic and immune to knowledge of the source of the perturbation and its timing. We suggest the reason for this difference between visual and vestibular channels stems from a difference in their natural abilities to signal self-motion. The vestibular system responds to acceleration of the head in space and therefore always signals self-motion. Visual flow, on the other hand, is ambiguous in that it signals object motion and eye motion, as well as self-motion.