Jacob Nelson on secondment

My secondment took place at the Istituto Itialiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute for Technology) from 24 October to 11 November, 2016, as well as from 27 February to 3 March, 2017. For the first two weeks, I worked closely with Monica Gori and Luigi Cuturi on an auditory localization task wherein blindfolded sighted participants sat in front of an array of speakers and had to touch their finger to the source of a sound. For the remaining three weeks, including the week in 2017, I worked with Gabriel Baud-Bovy on a tactile interception task, wherein a haptic device placed a stationary or moving probe on the arm of a blindfolded sighted participant, who then had to intercept or reproduce the motion of the felt probe. The project with Dr. Gori led to a collaboration with Utrecht University at the end of March 2017, the results of which have been submitted and are currently under review.


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Genoa Interception. Photo credits: Jacob Nelson.


The initial goal of the project with Monica Gori was to try to develop a tool to train proprioception using auditory cues. Blindfolded participants sat in front of an array of eight speakers aligned in the sagittal plane, listened to a sound coming from one of the speakers, and then touched the point on the array from which they emanated using their right index finger. They performed this task over the course of three phases (pre-test, mid-test, and post-test), locating 80 sounds per phase. Between each test phase there was a training phase, in which participants were instructed to play a piano (also oriented in the sagittal plane in front of the participant, such that low keys were closest to the participant) using only their right index finger. Half of the participants wore a smartwatch during the training phases; the smartwatch emitted constant pink noise for the duration of the training phases. Our hypothesis was that this location-dependent auditory cue would improve participants’ ability to determine the distance of auditory stimuli, and that participants who wore the smartwatch during training would show greater improvement over the course of the experiment than those who did not wear the watch. Ultimately, we found that participants were generally both accurate and precise in locating auditory stimuli from the beginning, and that they did not improve much from pre-test to post-test phases. The training condition to which the participants were assigned did not appear to have an effect on performance. This project ultimately led to a collaboration with Prof. Albert Postma at Utrecht University, involving blind and blindfolded sighted participants’ haptic spatial perception in the area surrounding their own bodies. Data for this project were collected at the “ZieZo Beurs” in Utrecht, the Netherlands, at the end of March 2017, and the work is currently under review.


The project with Gabriel Baud-Bovy involved a haptic interception task, wherein participants sat blindfolded at a table while a robotic device moved a probe along the participant’s left arm. The participant’s task was to use their right index finger to hit the probe as it moved along the arm. The speed, distance traveled, and direction of the probe varied over the course of the experiment. After getting our initial results, we ran a follow-up study in February and March of 2017 in order to separate the components of velocity and position. This time we ran two experiments: one wherein participants again had to “intercept” a probe that remained stationary on the arm rather than moving, and one wherein participants felt a moving probe and simply had to reproduce its speed by moving their finger through space. These three experiments are now being analyzed and will be submitted for publication shortly.


My time in Genoa has given me insight into various new areas of research, primarily involving haptic and proprioceptive senses in a clinical population. These experiences have helped to round out my PhD and give me a taste of other areas of research I may choose to pursue in the future.