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J Neurosci. 2013 Aug 14;33(33):13498-504. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5647-12.2013.

The flickering wheel illusion: when α rhythms make a static wheel flicker.

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Université de Toulouse, Centre de Recherche Cerveau et Cognition, Université Paul Sabatier, 31062 Toulouse, France.


α oscillations (8-14 Hz) greatly influence brain activity, yet we generally do not experience them consciously: the world does not appear to oscillate. Dedicated strategies must exist in the brain to prevent these oscillations from disrupting normal processing. Could suitable stimuli fool these strategies and lead to the conscious experience of our own brain oscillations? We describe and explore a novel illusion in which the center of a static wheel stimulus (with 30-40 spokes) is experienced as flickering when viewed in the visual periphery. The key feature of this illusion is that the stimulus fluctuations are experienced as a regular and consistent flicker, which our human observers estimated at ~9 Hz during a psychophysical matching task. Correspondingly, the occipital α rhythm of the EEG was the only oscillation that showed a time course compatible with the reported illusion: when α amplitude was strong, the probability of reporting illusory flicker increased. The peak oscillatory frequency for these flicker-induced modulations was significantly correlated, on a subject-by-subject basis, with the individual α frequency measured during rest, in the absence of visual stimulation. Finally, although the effect is strongest during eye movements, we showed that stimulus motion relative to the retina is not necessary to perceive the illusion: the flicker can also be perceived on the afterimage of the wheel, yet by definition this afterimage is stationary on the retina. We conclude that this new flickering illusion is a unique way to experience the α rhythms that constantly occur in the brain but normally remain unnoticed.

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