Short-term visual deprivation does not enhance passive tactile spatial acuity

Michael Wong, McMaster University
Erik Hackeman, Duquesne University
Caitlin Hurd, McMaster University
Daniel Goldreich, McMaster University


An important unresolved question in sensory neuroscience is whether, and if so with what time course, tactile perception is enhanced by visual deprivation. In three experiments involving 158 normally sighted human participants, we assessed whether tactile spatial acuity improves with short-term visual deprivation over periods ranging from under 10 to over 110 minutes. We used an automated, precisely controlled two-interval forced-choice grating orientation task to assess each participant's ability to discern the orientation of square-wave gratings pressed against the stationary index finger pad of the dominant hand. A two-down one-up staircase (Experiment 1) or a Bayesian adaptive procedure (Experiments 2 and 3) was used to determine the groove width of the grating whose orientation each participant could reliably discriminate. The experiments consistently showed that tactile grating orientation discrimination does not improve with short-term visual deprivation. In fact, we found that tactile performance degraded slightly but significantly upon a brief period of visual deprivation (Experiment 1) and did not improve over periods of up to 110 minutes of deprivation (Experiments 2 and 3). The results additionally showed that grating orientation discrimination tends to improve upon repeated testing, and confirmed that women significantly outperform men on the grating orientation task. We conclude that, contrary to two recent reports but consistent with an earlier literature, passive tactile spatial acuity is not enhanced by short-term visual deprivation. Our findings have important theoretical and practical implications. On the theoretical side, the findings set limits on the time course over which neural mechanisms such as crossmodal plasticity may operate to drive sensory changes; on the practical side, the findings suggest that researchers who compare tactile acuity of blind and sighted participants should not blindfold the sighted participants. © 2011 Wong et al.