When three stimulators are simultaneously touched with the middle three fingers of one hand but only the outer two stimulators are cooled or heated, the central (neutral) stimulator is also perceived to be cold or warm. This phenomenon is known as thermal referral and it shares phenomenological similarities with filling-in, in which the discontinuity in the signals of interest can be compensated perceptually on the basis of the spatially adjacent context. Although the mechanisms underlying filling-in have been well substantiated, those underlying thermal referral are still poorly understood. In the present study, we examined the intensity perception of the sensation resulting from thermal referral with human participants. We found that the sensation was uniform among the three fingers, but its apparent intensity was always lower than the physical intensity applied to the outer two fingers. These results indicate that the thermal uniformity perceived under thermal referral is not created by the brain's interpolating the thermal changes applied to the outer two fingers, as one would expect for those induced by typical filling-in. Instead, the thermal changes applied to the outer two fingers are summated and redistributed to all the fingers in contact. Our findings suggest that thermal referral is mediated by two separate processes. One determines the apparent intensity from the physical intensity and the areal extent of the thermal stimulation; the other determines the localization of the resulting sensation from the apparent sites of tactile stimulation.
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