Moving and interacting with the environment require a reference for orientation and a scale for calibration in space and time. There is a wide variety of environmental clues and calibrated frames at different locales, but the reference of gravity is ubiquitous on Earth. The pull of gravity on static objects provides a plummet which, together with the horizontal plane, defines a three-dimensional Cartesian frame for visual images. On the other hand, the gravitational acceleration of falling objects can provide a time-stamp on events, because the motion duration of an object accelerated by gravity over a given path is fixed. Indeed, since ancient times, man has been using plumb bobs for spatial surveying, and water clocks or pendulum clocks for time keeping. Here we review behavioral evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the brain is endowed with mechanisms that exploit the presence of gravity to estimate the spatial orientation and the passage of time. Several visual and non-visual (vestibular, haptic, visceral) cues are merged to estimate the orientation of the visual vertical. However, the relative weight of each cue is not fixed, but depends on the specific task. Next, we show that an internal model of the effects of gravity is combined with multisensory signals to time the interception of falling objects, to time the passage through spatial landmarks during virtual navigation, to assess the duration of a gravitational motion, and to judge the naturalness of periodic motion under gravity.
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