Tactile perception is the interpretation of information provided by skin sensations. It involves a complex connection from the nerves that supply the skin to the brain, where different areas of the brain correspond to specific sites on the skin. This information can be critical for spatial awareness, the recognition of threats, and fine motor tasks. Researchers in this field work on experiments to learn more about the brain’s role in perception, develop and test hypotheses to explain specific sensory phenomena, and determine what happens when people lose sensation.
The sense of tactile perception starts to develop very early, and matures as infants interact with the world around them. Two areas of the body, the face and hands, are particularly well-supplied with nerves and offer considerable feedback on the surrounding environment to the brain. This is one reason infants and young children may grab at items of interest to learn more about them. Objects can provide sensations of texture, temperature, and consistency that offer information about what they are and how they work.
Nerves can send a variety of signals about sensation in the environment to help the brain orient the body and interpret its surroundings. Tactile perception can also play a critical role in safety. Specialized nerve endings known as nociceptors are sensitized to pain specifically, and provide warnings about the experience of pain. These signals can fast track to allow the body to move to avoid a threat like a fire or sharp object.
People can develop problems with tactical perception as a result of nerve or brain damage. Burn victims, for example, experience loss of sensation at the site of the burn and may not be aware of painful sensations that provide important warnings. People with brain injuries could experience phantom sensations, or might fail to interpret information correctly. Chronic pain conditions can also interfere with tactile perception and may make every sensation feel undesirable or painful.
Phantom perceptions are also a topic of interest for some tactile perception researchers. Striking examples can be seen in some amputees, who experience phantom sensations from the missing limb. These can include pain, but could involve other sensory experiences as well. Learning about how this occurs can help care providers treat patients with such symptoms, sometimes through cognitive tricks like mirror therapy. In this tactic, the patient works with a mirror and the remaining limb to visually simulate the movement of both limbs, which can override the signals sent to the brain.