Space and time in perceptual causality
Department of Neurology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Philipps-University Marburg, Marburg, Germany
Inferring causality is a fundamental feature of human cognition that allows us to theorize about and predict future states of the world. Michotte suggested that humans automatically perceive causality based on certain perceptual features of events. However, individual differences in judgments of perceptual causality cast doubt on Michotte’s view. To gain insights in the neural basis of individual difference in the perception of causality, our participants judged causal relationships in animations of a blue ball colliding with a red ball (a launching event) while fMRI-data were acquired. Spatial continuity and temporal contiguity were varied parametrically in these stimuli. We did not find consistent brain activation differences between trials judged as caused and those judged as non-caused, making it unlikely that humans have universal instantiation of perceptual causality in the brain. However, participants were slower to respond to and showed greater neural activity for violations of causality, suggesting that humans are biased to expect causal relationships when moving objects appear to interact. Our participants demonstrated considerable individual differences in their sensitivity to spatial and temporal characteristics in perceiving causality. These qualitative differences in sensitivity to time or space in perceiving causality were instantiated in individual differences in activation of the left basal ganglia or right parietal lobe, respectively. Thus, the perception that the movement of one object causes the movement of another is triggered by elemental spatial and temporal sensitivities, which themselves are instantiated in specific distinct neural networks.