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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A critical experimental study of the classical tactile threshold theory

Claudio A Perez1*, José R Donoso2 and Leonel E Medina1

Author Affiliations

1 Biomedical Engineering Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, and Advanced Mining Technology Center, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 412-3, Av. Tupper 2007, Santiago, Chile

2 Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2010, 11:76  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-11-76

Published: 18 June 2010

Abstract

Background

The tactile sense is being used in a variety of applications involving tactile human-machine interfaces. In a significant number of publications the classical threshold concept plays a central role in modelling and explaining psychophysical experimental results such as in stochastic resonance (SR) phenomena. In SR, noise enhances detection of sub-threshold stimuli and the phenomenon is explained stating that the required amplitude to exceed the sensory threshold barrier can be reached by adding noise to a sub-threshold stimulus. We designed an experiment to test the validity of the classical vibrotactile threshold. Using a second choice experiment, we show that individuals can order sensorial events below the level known as the classical threshold. If the observer's sensorial system is not activated by stimuli below the threshold, then a second choice could not be above the chance level. Nevertheless, our experimental results are above that chance level contradicting the definition of the classical tactile threshold.

Results

We performed a three alternative forced choice detection experiment on 6 subjects asking them first and second choices. In each trial, only one of the intervals contained a stimulus and the others contained only noise. According to the classical threshold assumptions, a correct second choice response corresponds to a guess attempt with a statistical frequency of 50%. Results show an average of 67.35% (STD = 1.41%) for the second choice response that is not explained by the classical threshold definition. Additionally, for low stimulus amplitudes, second choice correct detection is above chance level for any detectability level.

Conclusions

Using a second choice experiment, we show that individuals can order sensorial events below the level known as a classical threshold. If the observer's sensorial system is not activated by stimuli below the threshold, then a second choice could not be above the chance level. Nevertheless, our experimental results are above that chance level. Therefore, if detection exists below the classical threshold level, then the model to explain the SR phenomenon or any other tactile perception phenomena based on the psychophysical classical threshold is not valid. We conclude that a more suitable model of the tactile sensory system is needed.