Vibrotactile Masking Experiments Reveal Accelerated Somatosensory Processing in Congenitally Blind Braille Readers
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Braille reading is a demanding task that requires the identification of rapidly varying tactile patterns. During proficient reading, neighboring characters impact the fingertip at ∼100 ms intervals, and adjacent raised dots within a character at 50 ms intervals. Because the brain requires time to interpret afferent sensorineural activity, among other reasons, tactile stimuli separated by such short temporal intervals pose a challenge to perception. How, then, do proficient Braille readers successfully interpret inputs arising from their fingertips at such rapid rates? We hypothesized that somatosensory perceptual consolidation occurs more rapidly in proficient Braille readers. If so, Braille readers should outperform sighted participants on masking tasks, which demand rapid perceptual processing, but would not necessarily outperform the sighted on tests of simple vibrotactile sensitivity. To investigate, we conducted two-interval forced-choice vibrotactile detection, amplitude discrimination, and masking tasks on the index fingertips of 89 sighted and 57 profoundly blind humans. Sighted and blind participants had similar unmasked detection (25 ms target tap) and amplitude discrimination (compared with 100 μm reference tap) thresholds, but congenitally blind Braille readers, the fastest readers among the blind participants, exhibited significantly less masking than the sighted (masker, 50 Hz, 50 μm; target-masker delays, ±50 and ±100 ms). Indeed, Braille reading speed correlated significantly and specifically with masking task performance, and in particular with the backward masking decay time constant. We conclude that vibrotactile sensitivity is unchanged but that perceptual processing is accelerated in congenitally blind Braille readers.
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