Active Touch versus Passive Touch. Friday 23 August, 2013.

By Andrew Mashigo.

The benefits of Touch is not a new phenomenon and exploring our perception of the touch process is not a unique exercise in itself. This, it needs to be said, is however not a definitive article on touch.

We often talk about how touch allows us the opportunity to explore objects and surfaces, but we should not disregard the value of touch as a crucial everyday tool for making viable connections with our immediate physical environment. When Mothers give birth, the first thing they do with their new-born is to have a warm and sustained cuddle, making that crucial physical connection which aids the mother-and-child bonding process. It is known that this needs to happen within the first few minutes of birth, a sign of the value of active touch. Touch is known in many ways as our first language.

The Touch.

Much has already been said about what we gain by touching something but the full capacity of the touch process may probably have been understated in some places. It is said that if our skin was laid flat, it would cover an area of 18 square feet! That’s a lot of touching space!

As mentioned in a previous blog (“So, why Touch the Art then? posted on the 15th of May), the sense of touch is one of 5 senses in the body and while the other senses (sight, hearing, smell and taste) are located on specific parts of the body, the sense of touch is found all over the body.

Only after the loss of the sense of touch do we realise its importance, as we often hear of people describing their “phantom limb” when they lose a limb. This phenomenon happens when nerves in that part of the body receives a host of information from its touch receptors which is then sent to the brain, with that part of the body expecting a response to help make a determination of its location, possible actions or reactions.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a hug, a smile, a kind word, all of which have the potential to turn a life around completely – Leo F Buscaglia

The Active Touch.

It is possible to touch something and not make a defining touch connection with that thing or object. It is also possible to have an illusion of Touch, where it is assumed that an actual touch has taken place. This kind of touch is phlegmatic and inert, whereas an actual touch is Active (Haptic) touch.

When we explore something, for example, a coin, the active process of touch is to hold the coin, feel its edges and rub our fingers around both faces of the coin. This Haptic perception helps us recognise an object by the kind of touch we engage during the touch process. Using various physical cues, we experience a purposeful touch.

But by just feather-touching the coin, this inert action which i call “passive touch” will probably only allow us to feel the grooves on the coin without the added possibility of exploring other valuable characteristics and attributes like the depth of the grooves, the weight of the coin, the shape of the symbols on the coin and even the temperature of the coin. This is passive because it is not engaging, and it is also not truly purposeful.

When we explore a seed, we feel for those elements that define the seed differently from another object. Why would a seed feel different from, say, a football, or a marble? Some touch is enough to give us an idea of various elements of an object, like its temperature, but to investigate Haptic identification, we need active touch. Touching plastic, e.g, feels very different from touching wood, or steel, or glass, or cardboard.

Profile pic for MaMoMi. Feb 2012

Haptic object recognition can be rapid and immediate, aiding the ability to correctly identify physical objects. We can also actively touch liquids, helping to identify water differently from oil, for example.

Our visual perception is the most celebrated sense of perception and our touch perception can be utilised greatly to explore objects and compliment the visual perception. As with the practice of Touching visual objects like the touchable art in Museums, we can use this sense to explore the physical characteristics and qualities of various artworks. Wooden sculptures reveal its fine line details and texture which are different from the experience of touching a marble or steel sculpture. Valuable cues to identifying these objects touched are sources of information about an objects shape, feel, geometry, surface, temperature and texture, attributes critical for that object’s identification.

What is a Touch illusion?

It is possible to experience touch illusion, where the force generated by physical objects explored may give us a distorted perception of the object touched, masking the real object. This tactile mis-perception can still happen even if the touch process is supported by a visual cue because the forces in question can cause us to experience a virtual sensation so it seems or feels like a physical or geometric object, over-riding the geometric information we perceive from the object.

This then raises a few questions. What sets of information are most crucial to create a viable perception of something? What combination or series of viable incidences or interlocking cues are most relevant for the actual (true) identification of a tactile description?

An exercise.

Join me in doing a little test. Stop all you are currently doing right now for a few minutes. Choose or Isolate a touch action, something you probably do regularly without much of a second thought to it.

Now, go through this action, but this time, give it your full attention. Go through your chosen action slowly (pick up your cup of coffee, move your computer mouse, place your books back on the book shelf, or just scribble a note on your book). You notice various senses and sensations are in action; temperature sensation; pressure sensation; weight sensation; texture differences; angles on the objects; your muscle movements; and other subtle changes in detail, all helping you recognise these previously subliminal sensations.

Do this action twice, first by visually observing the process, and the next time without any visual observation (either shut your eyes or look away from what you are doing). What differences do you observe? Note them, and feel free to share your observation.


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