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Germany: How Touch Forms Our Thoughts When Our Senses Play Tricks on Us

Editor: Alexander Stark

The sense of touch is the earliest human sense: in utero, a fetus already perceives itself and its environment through touch. A new research group at Citec is investigating how the sense of touch directs human thought.

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Even if the hands and feet are crossed, it can happen that the touch to the right hand is felt on the right foot.
Even if the hands and feet are crossed, it can happen that the touch to the right hand is felt on the right foot.
(Source: University of Bielefeld)

Bielefeld/Germany — The human body is equipped with senses, from touch to sight. And these sensors define how we can think. Skin is the boundary between the body and the environment, and for this reason, skin plays a particularly important role in self-perception. Prof. Dr. Tobias Heed specializes in how the brain registers its body and environment through touch and movement. In September 2016, Heed was appointed professor to the Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science at Bielefeld University.

Dr. Heed explores how the human brain plans and controls movements while taking touch into account, for example, what happens when the brain notices a fly on the arm and calls upon the hand to brush the insect away. We use our hands as tools to feel out and manipulate our environment. Our skin and body parts are always in motion. A big question is thus how the brain translates a touch of the skin into a spatial location. How does the brain incorporate the position and posture of every body part in order to situate these touches in space? Touch is necessary to evaluate the environment and to decide what the next thing to do is.

In many situations, there are many paths that can be used to arrive at our goals, says Heed. "For instance, you could open a door with your left hand instead of your right if you are holding a shopping bag in your right hand. Alternatively, you could push the door handle with your elbow, knee, or foot.” In his research, this has led Heed to the question of how the brain manages to provide the different possible actions and choose from among them.

In order to find out how consciousness of one’s body develops, Heed’s research group also wants to investigate the behavior of children who are physically clumsy, such as those who frequently stumble and fall. “This behavior indicates that it is difficult for the brain to precisely perceive the body. If we can figure out what is disrupting the connection between the body and brain, we will also find out how this link normally functions.” These findings could be used, for instance, in training programs to improve physical awareness of one’s body.

Psychology often deals with measuring abstract concepts like intelligence or social interaction. Heed and his team, however, is dedicated first to the basic abilities of touch and grasping, without which such abstract phenomena would not even be possible. This is because the same areas in the brain that are responsible for grasping also control, according to Heed, complex capabilities like one’s perception of body and space. "The ability to count is based on spatial perception, among other things. So, first we have to understand the underlying capabilities in order to also be able to decipher complex processes,” concludes Heed.