Spatial Perception and the Sense of Touch

In The Subject's Matter: Self-Consciousness and the Body. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 97-114 (2017)
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It remains controversial whether touch is a truly spatial sense or not. Many philosophers suggest that, if touch is indeed spatial, it is only through its alliances with exploratory movement, and with proprioception. Here we develop the notion that a minimal yet important form of spatial perception may occur in purely passive touch. We do this by showing that the array of tactile receptive fields in the skin, and appropriately relayed to the cortex, may contain the same basic informational building blocks that a creature navigating around its environment uses to build up a perception of space. We illustrate this point with preliminary evidence that perception of spatiotemporal patterns on the human skin shows some of the same features as spatial navigation in animals. We argue (a) that the receptor array defines a ‘tactile field’, (b) that this field exists in a minimal form in ‘skin space’, logically prior to any transformation into bodily or external spatial coordinates, and (c) that this field supports tactile perception without integration of concurrent proprioceptive or motor information. The basic cognitive elements of space perception may begin at lower levels of neural and perceptual organisation than previously thought.

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Tony Cheng
University College London


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