Perceived object stability depends on multisensory estimates of gravity

Michael Barnett-Cowan, Roland W. Fleming, Manish Singh, Heinrich H. Bülthoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Background: How does the brain estimate object stability? Objects fall over when the gravity-projected centre-of-mass lies outside the point or area of support. To estimate an object's stability visually, the brain must integrate information across the shape and compare its orientation to gravity. When observers lie on their sides, gravity is perceived as tilted toward body orientation, consistent with a representation of gravity derived from multisensory information. We exploited this to test whether vestibular and kinesthetic information affect this visual task or whether the brain estimates object stability solely from visual information. Methodology/Principal Findings: In three body orientations, participants viewed images of objects close to a table edge. We measured the critical angle at which each object appeared equally likely to fall over or right itself. Perceived gravity was measured using the subjective visual vertical. The results show that the perceived critical angle was significantly biased in the same direction as the subjective visual vertical (i.e., towards the multisensory estimate of gravity). Conclusions/Significance: Our results rule out a general explanation that the brain depends solely on visual heuristics and assumptions about object stability. Instead, they suggest that multisensory estimates of gravity govern the perceived stability of objects, resulting in objects appearing more stable than they are when the head is tilted in the same direction in which they fall.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere19289
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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