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Sense and Sensibility

Why is tactile perception so fundamental to life?

By | September 1, 2012

image: Sense and Sensibility The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo BuonarrotiWikipedia

Is touch the most powerful of all our senses? As a brand-new grandparent I can personally attest to how closely touch is tied to human emotion and well-being. My granddaughter is almost always immediately calmed by caresses that I find impossible not to bestow. I can’t wait to watch her reaction when she reaches out and feels the fuzzy cover of the classic children’s book, Pat the Bunny.

Artists and philosophers have forever tried to capture and explain the power of touch. Crowds crane their necks to view Michelangelo’s masterful Creation of Adam, the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel ceiling some 65 feet overhead. Because of its height, it looks at first glance as if the fingertips of God and Adam are touching, though they’re not. Although the interpretation is subjective, the work is very emotionally evocative.

Surprisingly little is known about this most essential of senses, and researchers investigating tactile perception from all angles have found that it is the most complicated sense to study. There are still basics that need elucidation: how exactly are tactile stimuli encoded in the brain, the identity of the physical and molecular players modulating the many different perceptions conveyed by touch—vibration, pressure, temperature, pain—and why touch is so intricately tied to our emotions.

Surprisingly little is known about this most essential of senses, and researchers investigating touch from all angles have found that it is the most complicated sense to study.


In this special issue of The Scientist devoted to the sense of touch, we have chosen to explore the subject by examining some of the more unusual approaches to researching the subject. “A Nose for Touch” describes an amazing tactile organ—the star-nosed mole’s fingertip-size nasal appendage, which is innervated by more than 100,000 sensory neurons and contains “many times more than the total number of touch fibers (17,000) found in the human hand,” according to author Ken Catania, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. By mapping touch areas in the animal’s somatosensory cortex, Catania and his colleagues hope to elucidate some of the “general principles about how brains process and represent sensory information.”

 

While not sporting quite such extraordinary touch-sensing appendages, animals as varied as jumping spiders and elephants sense vibrations and use them to communicate and interpret their surroundings, Cristina Luiggi reports in “Good Vibrations." In “Pleasant to the Touch," Sabrina Richards reports on what is known about how we are wired to perceive gentle, pleasurable touches, and why receiving this type of sensation is so important for normal human development and social interaction.

The latest technology for adding a sense of touch to prosthetic arms is the subject of “Missing Touch” by Megan Scudellari. Because arm prostheses on the market today cannot “feel” what they touch, users must always be looking at what they reach for in order not to miss or crush what they grasp. Incorporating feeling into upper-limb prostheses will eventually have the added benefit of giving users something they sorely lack now—a sense that they own their artificial limb, that it is part of their body.

Psychologist Christina Karns writes a Thought Experiment, “The Pliable Brain," about how she and her colleagues have found that touch perception in deaf people is altered, and suggests that the degree of alteration might be tapped to decide what type of treatment is most suitable for a given person.

Whether you are reading this issue by holding the magazine in your hand, pressing your mouse, or touching the screen of your tablet, I hope you will find this issue “sense-ational.”

Mary Beth Aberlin
Editor-in-Chief
eic@the-scientist.com

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Comments

Avatar of: EllenHunt

EllenHunt

Posts: 74

September 4, 2012

It is the first sense to evolve. Single celled organisms respond to touch. Things bump against each other.

Avatar of: agelbert

agelbert

Posts: 50

September 5, 2012

And action at a distance in quantum physics violates the law of conservation of energy. The double slit experiment also opened the door to the oneness of the universe and the FACT that everything is connected to everything else at the quantum level and, consequently, at the macro level as well. Separateness is an artifact of the macro level. The evolution of Touch may very well have been caused by the reality life forms instinctively (or rather, quantumly) are aware of. We are, after all, a product of quantum physics in the universe. Touch may be an attempt of sentience to duplicate at the macro level the oneness that quantum physics (see electron entanglement) has proven permeates reality from the moleculalr level on down. Underlying all the complex energy transfer mechanisms called life forms with all the techniques to temporarily reverse entropy and prolong life through senses geared to do this is the scientific quandary of a Darwinian perspective versus the quantum physical reality of action at a distance with total disregard for classical energy physics. Why do we seek energy if we are all one? Only if we falsely preceive we are all separate and must compete in the Darwinian model for energy. Why would evolution allow energy seeking organisms to evolve if it is all connected and there actually is no competition for energy resources because the law of conservation of energy simply is irrelevant in the multiverse? Because the universe evolved sentience as a macro expression of quantum reality. We ACTUALLY are not seeking energy. We ACTUALLY are not "eating" each other in a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" scenario. What we ACTUALLY are doing is trying to join up at the macro level. Think about it. It's not as crazy as it sounds. It's just counterintuitive as all get out!

Avatar of: agelbert

agelbert

Posts: 50

September 5, 2012

@EllenHunt,
And action at a distance in quantum physics violates the law of conservation of energy. The double slit experiment also opened the door to the oneness of the universe and the FACT that everything is connected to everything else at the quantum level and, consequently, at the macro level as well. Separateness is an artifact of the macro level. The evolution of Touch may very well have been caused by the reality life forms instinctively (or rather, quantumly) are aware of. We are, after all, a product of quantum physics in the universe. Touch may be attempt of sentience to duplicate at the macro level the oneness that quantum physics (see electron entanglement) has proven permeates reality from the moleculalr level on down. Underlying all the complex energy transfer mechanisms called life forms with all the techniques to temporarily reverse entropy and prolong life through senses geared to do this is the scientific quandary of a Darwinian perspective versus the quantum physical reality of action at a distance with total disregard for classical energy physics. Why do we seek energy if we are all one? Only if we falsely preceive we are all separate and must compete in the Darwinian model for energy. Why would evolution allow energy seeking organisms to evolve if it is all connected and there actually is no competition for energy resources because the law of conservation of energy simply is irrelevant in the multiverse? Because the universe evolved sentience as a macro expression of quantum reality. We ACTUALLY are not seeking energy. We ACTUALLY are not "eating" each other in a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" scenario. What we ACTUALLY are doing is trying to join up at the macro level. Think about it. It's not as crazy as it sounds. It's just counterintuitive as all get out!

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