A few weeks ago, we brought you a story about how spiders in space build their webs in the absence of gravity and/or light. Without gravity, spiders in the dark would orient their webs any which way; without gravity but with light, spiders oriented their webs with their heads down from the light. Humans don’t build webs, but we do tend to rely on gravity for everything. So what happens when we cannot tell which way is up?
Researchers at York University’s Centre for Vision Research recently published a paper in the journal PLOS ONE on the results of their work using virtual reality to simulate the loss of gravitational orientation in humans. The press release explains that the participants had to “lie down in a virtual environment that was tilted so that the visual ‘up’ was above their head and not aligned with gravity.”
As a result, the team found that there were two distinct groups of people: those that perceived they were standing up vertically and those that persisted in sensing they were lying down. The former group reported that they were moving faster and further in the simulation than the latter group.
Co-author and Professor Laurence Harris noted: The findings reported in this paper could be helpful when we land people on the Moon again, on Mars, or on comets or asteroids, as low-gravity environments might lead some people to interpret their self-motion differently – with potentially catastrophic results.
Additionally, he pointed out: These findings may also help us to better understand and predict why astronauts may misestimate how far they have moved in a given situation, especially in the microgravity of space.
“When gravity is not where it should be: How perceived orientation affects visual self-motion processing,” Meaghan McManus and, Laurence R. Harris, 2021 January 6, PLOS ONE