Defining “active sensing” through an analysis of sensing energetics: homeoactive and alloactive sensing

Nadina O. Zweifel, Mitra J.Z. Hartmann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The term “active sensing” has been defined in multiple ways. Most strictly, the term refers to sensing that uses self-generated energy to sample the environment (e.g., echolocation). More broadly, the definition includes all sensing that occurs when the sensor is moving (e.g., tactile stimuli obtained by an immobile versus moving fingertip) and, broader still, includes all sensing guided by attention or intent (e.g., purposeful eye movements). The present work offers a framework to help disambiguate aspects of the “active sensing” terminology and reveals properties of tactile sensing unique among all modalities. The framework begins with the well-described “sensorimotor loop,” which expresses the perceptual process as a cycle involving four subsystems: environment, sensor, nervous system, and actuator. Using system dynamics, we examine how information flows through the loop. This “sensory-energetic loop” reveals two distinct sensing mechanisms that subdivide active sensing into homeoactive and alloactive sensing. In homeoactive sensing, the animal can change the state of the environment, while in alloactive sensing the animal can alter only the sensor’s configurational parameters and thus the mapping between input and output. Given these new definitions, examination of the sensory-energetic loop helps identify two unique characteristics of tactile sensing: 1) in tactile systems, alloactive and homeoactive sensing merge to a mutually controlled sensing mechanism, and 2) tactile sensing may require fundamentally different predictions to anticipate reafferent input. We expect this framework may help resolve ambiguities in the active sensing community and form a basis for future theoretical and experimental work regarding alloactive and homeoactive sensing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-48
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2020


  • Active sensing
  • Active touch
  • Active vision
  • Eye movement
  • Sensory system
  • Tactile

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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