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Touch differs?

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Have you ever thought about how touch differs from your other senses in the information it provides?  A good way to find out is to blindfold yourself and try and do some selected tasks, or even walk a selected route.  If you do, you will soon find out!  Many people tend to think that when someone loses their vision, their touch just “takes over”.  Even with all we know now about the plasticity of the brain, we still cannot expect an apple to become an orange!  Working in  the field of visual impairment and deafblindness, we need to think through everything we are expecting of the children and youth we work with.  So — we MUST think of how touch differs, especially how it differs from vision.

It is what we call a “contact” sense.  You cannot touch something from a distance – like you can see or hear something at a distance. Arm’s length. Let’s say you are under blindfold and are confronted with your desk at work.  You have some idea of where everything is located because (hopefully!) you remember where things usually are on the desk.   But here are some things to consider:

  • You do not get an OVERALL view of your desk.  So you cannot pounce on that pen when you need it, or make a beeline for a book that you know you left on your desk yesterday.  You have to move your hands around to locate them.  And even when you do find your pen or the book, you are really only concentrating on those items and not on the rest of the desk.  You have just lost some of the environmental “context”.  So, keeping this in mind, what is one important thing to remember to do? Organize your desk very carefully so that you know where things are in relation to one another.  And then leave a note on your desk saying, “Do not mess with my desk!”
  • To reiterate – you are provided with little or no CONTEXT. If there’s a mug of coffee balanced on the book you are looking for, you might just find the mug, but not the book below it.  Or you may just knock the coffee all over your book!

When you look around you, images are stored so rapidly that you are not even aware of the tremendous number of eye movements and brain connections it takes in that split second to give you an overview of your surroundings.  Imagine you are in a garden — even a small one — and you want to know what is around you — but you are unable to see.  You need to use touch.

  • You know very soon that touch does not give you the same rapid overview.  It is not a QUICK sense when you need to explore. Of course, the “defensive” side of touch is quick — as when you touch something hot.
  • It may take you a long time to explore what you can with your hands – or your feet.  You also realize that you may be feeling with other parts of your body.  After all, the sense of touch is more than just in your hands!  It is THE LARGEST SENSE because it is from head to toe!  To make things more complicated, not all areas of this large sense act the same way.  Some are more sensitive than others.  Certainly that is one of the reasons most people who read braille by touch do so by using their finger-pads rather than their elbow or the backs of their hands!  I knew one child who read better with his thumb; and another who read with the sides of his hands – but that was because their finger-pads did not function the way most finger-pads do.
  • You will also discover that there are things you cannot reach and some you cannot touch – like that tall sequoia tree or the tiger at the zoo!  So for touch to work, it MUST BE WITHIN REACH.  Consider — when you cannot reach something and you cannot see it, you may never really develop a concept for it, unless you have a visual memory of it.  For example, try describing Mount Everest to a person who has been blind from birth.  There are also things we can “see” visually that are not “real”.  For example, try describing  “horizon” in tactile terms.  Having miniatures doesn’t work very well either.  When you touch a miniature sequoia tree, Mt. Everest, or the Eiffel Tower, your sense of touch does not give you the same information that your eyes would.
  • When looking at a painting on a wall in front of us, our eyes make a large number of movements between parts of the picture as they take everything in.  We are not even conscious that are eyes are moving around, very rapidly, so we can “see” the whole picture and maybe recognize that its the Mona Lisa – because we see the whole thing.  Touch cannot do this.  We can look at a famous statue — and recognize it instantly.  Think of the large statue of President Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.  It is LARGE — but our eyes can scan it rapidly and our brain can confirm what we are seeing.  Imagine – if it was possible — how long it might take to go over the statue via touch!  And then, when we are done, it may still not be recognizable at all — too much to scan via touch, too many details, too much to put together!  It will just not make sense.
  • This applies to reading too.  Reading print and reading braille are two very different experiences.  When you read print, your eyes, very rapidly, scan ahead.  If they didn’t — you would be reading only one letter at a time, and not seeing the whole word or a section of a line.  The eyes make stops as they scan a line of print – each stop-move is counted as a “saccade”.  For a beginning reader, there are many stops.  For a speed-reader, there may be only two or three stops per line.  Now think of braille.  It is read with the pads of the fingers (usually!), one or two fingers taking the lead, while the others help keep track of what is on the line, and when to change to the next line.  A person new to braille will look at only one letter at a time — and a more experienced person will scan the whole word.  This is where the similarity to print-reading ends. Really good braille readers do not have to stop and start.  They can just read continuously, except perhaps for a brief interval to change to the next line – or, deliberately, to rest.  This is even more so for those who are using what is called “refreshable braille”.  Maybe this can explain why one expends more energy when reading braille, than if reading a print version of the same document.

When you scan the environment with your eyes, you take in not just color in all its variations, and detail of the things you see — but this also includes what I will call “tactile” visuals.  For example, you can look at surfaces and objects and estimate whether rough or smooth, hard or soft – even without touching them.  This is because your eyes and brain create a loop of information where your eyes borrow information and add it on to what the actual visual is.  With touch, this type of interface between touch and the visual does not happen.

  • You don’t feel the color.  There has been some research done to figure out if some people can actually “feel” the color – and, who knows, this may be possible!  But, in general, if I touch an apple, I cannot tell you if it red, green or yellow.
  • You may not know the “detail” of the color either — streaky, all-red, spotted?
  • Touch is usually the sense that CONFIRMS what you see.  I see something that looks really heavy and rough (like a large rock in a garden), but it is only when I touch it or pick it up that I know it is really only a pseudo-rock – and light.  It is also much smoother than I originally thought.

These are only some thoughts about touch.  More to come!  To repeat myself — just be aware that touch does not automatically take over all the functions of vision because HOW they function differs.

Next blog or blogs (depends on how much I meander!!):

The importance of light touch.

Touch and the “social” sphere.

Extensiveness of touch.

Variety in touch.



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