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PLoS One. 2008;3(10):e3502. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003502. Epub 2008 Oct 29.

The multisensory attentional consequences of tool use: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.



Tool use in humans requires that multisensory information is integrated across different locations, from objects seen to be distant from the hand, but felt indirectly at the hand via the tool. We tested the hypothesis that using a simple tool to perceive vibrotactile stimuli results in the enhanced processing of visual stimuli presented at the distal, functional part of the tool. Such a finding would be consistent with a shift of spatial attention to the location where the tool is used.


We tested this hypothesis by scanning healthy human participants' brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, while they used a simple tool to discriminate between target vibrations, accompanied by congruent or incongruent visual distractors, on the same or opposite side to the tool. The attentional hypothesis was supported: BOLD response in occipital cortex, particularly in the right hemisphere lingual gyrus, varied significantly as a function of tool position, increasing contralaterally, and decreasing ipsilaterally to the tool. Furthermore, these modulations occurred despite the fact that participants were repeatedly instructed to ignore the visual stimuli, to respond only to the vibrotactile stimuli, and to maintain visual fixation centrally. In addition, the magnitude of multisensory (visual-vibrotactile) interactions in participants' behavioural responses significantly predicted the BOLD response in occipital cortical areas that were also modulated as a function of both visual stimulus position and tool position.


These results show that using a simple tool to locate and to perceive vibrotactile stimuli is accompanied by a shift of spatial attention to the location where the functional part of the tool is used, resulting in enhanced processing of visual stimuli at that location, and decreased processing at other locations. This was most clearly observed in the right hemisphere lingual gyrus. Such modulations of visual processing may reflect the functional importance of visuospatial information during human tool use.

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