Maybe you felt a fabric recently that made you smile. Or experienced a sense of calm as you pet the cat. Interestingly, our brain processes these sensations in a contextual way that plays a definite role in how we respond.
According to a noted neuroscientist, the word “touch” is actually not accurate for what our body senses in these situations.
An interview in Neuron describes how Francis McGlone, a neuroscience professor at Liverpool John Moores University in Liverpool, United Kingdom, studied our brain’s ability to process the sensation we typically refer to as “touch.”
McGlone notes that nerve cells are the communication link between the physical world and our brain. He posits that our brain is a social organ, retaining some of our earliest experiences in processing touch in a particular environment. For example, we may recall the context of our mom stroking our forehead to soothe us when we are sick.
McGlone describes how there are nerves or sensory receptors in the skin that detect certain sensations like itch, temperature and touch – in all over 20 different types of receptors telling our brain what’s going on in our body. He elaborates on the difference between these nerves and slower-responding nerves that our brain processes in seconds versus milliseconds.
When the brain processes these sensations in the emotional area, it is perceived as a feeling rather than a sensing. This “top-down” brain process mediates the touch in the context in which it is happening, like touching someone you care about or petting the cat. The context of how the brain receives and processes the sensation makes a difference in how we experience it.
McGlone also poses the question of whether we are becoming “touch starved” as a society as we communicate more digitally rather than through the tactile interaction of touching each other in person.
Listen to the short but interesting interview here.