Proprioceptive signals contribute to the sense of body ownership


Corresponding author S. C. Gandevia: Neuroscience Research Australia, Barker Street, Randwick, Sydney, NSW 2031, Australia. Email:


Non-technical summary  The sense of body ownership tells us that our body belongs to us, and other bodies do not. That our body belongs to us is fundamental to self-awareness. It is known that synchronous touch and vision can be used to induce an illusion of ownership over an artificial rubber hand. Like the skin receptors used for touch, sensory receptors in the muscles only provide information about events occurring to the body. Whether muscle receptors contribute to our sense of body ownership is not known. This study developed a technique to induce an illusion of ownership over a plastic finger using movement, which excites muscle receptors. This sense of ownership still occurred when the contribution of skin and joint receptors was removed using local anaesthetic. The results clearly show that muscle receptors can contribute to the sense of body ownership.


Abstract  The sense of body ownership, knowledge that parts of our body ‘belong’ to us, is presumably developed using sensory information. Cutaneous signals seem ideal for this and can modify the sense of ownership. For example, an illusion of ownership over an artificial rubber hand can be induced by synchronously stroking both the subject's hidden hand and a visible artificial hand. Like cutaneous signals, proprioceptive signals (e.g. from muscle receptors) exclusively signal events occurring in the body, but the influence of proprioceptors on the sense of body ownership is not known. We developed a technique to generate an illusion of ownership over an artificial plastic finger, using movement at the proximal interphalangeal joint as the stimulus. We then examined this illusion in 20 subjects when their index finger was intact and when the cutaneous and joint afferents from the finger had been blocked by local anaesthesia of the digital nerves. Subjects still experienced an illusion of ownership, induced by movement, over the plastic finger when the digital nerves were blocked. This shows that local cutaneous signals are not essential for the illusion and that inputs arising proximally, presumably from receptors in muscles which move the finger, can influence the sense of body ownership. Contrary to other studies, we found no evidence that voluntary movements induce stronger illusions of body ownership than those induced by passive movement. It seems that the congruence of sensory stimuli is more important to establish body ownership than the presence of multiple sensory signals.