Tactile Object Understanding and Characterization

Girl building an animal out of clay

Project Overview

Our brains are wired during development to recognize, remember and appreciate the beauty of objects in our world. Does this wiring depend on the senses feeding the brain? Through behavioral and brain imaging studies, we examined how the visual experience competes with the tactile (touching) experience in shaping how we perceive objects. The results of this research will change how we create learning materials and assistive devices for those who are blind or visually impaired.

In current society, information and resources are made most readily available to the visual sense. The social infrastructure, products and technologies are designed without a solid understanding of the non-visual modalities, such as the tactile modality. It is indeed remarkable that, in contrast to the sighted world and in spite of a long history, blindness rehabilitation is still very much based on ‘trial-and-error’ approaches rather than on sufficient scientific knowledge and understanding. We therefore designed this cutting-edge research to advance our understanding of tactile perception, tactile aesthetics, and tactile memory.

The general purpose of this study was to examine how people perceive tactile objects, how they characterize them, and whether the perception of tactile aesthetics and tactile memory can be affected by early visual experience through the study of congenitally blind, late-onset blind and blindfolded (sighted) participants. To this end, we employed the novel behavioral measures (tactile rating scale) in combination with cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques, i.e., functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), to study the functionality of the tactile modality and tactile aesthetics, and the brain mechanisms underlying tactile learning and memory.

Specifically, we designed our research to answer the following questions:

  • How does visual experience affect aesthetic perception of object shapes, and the perception of their basic physical features?
  • How does visual experience affect aesthetic perception of a textured surface, and the perception of its basic physical features?
  • Is tactile aesthetic perception independent of basic object recognition?
  • What is the role of visual experience on tactile memory encoding and retrieval?

The findings of this research will lay the foundation for designing research-driven rehabilitation for the blind and visually impaired. Specifically, understanding tactile perception and the function of properties such as object aesthetics can have a great impact on the development of better ergonomic design for the blind and visually impaired. Such understanding is of key importance in designing interactive/ accessible devices, objects and surfaces that increase the utility, enjoyment from products and enhance productivity. Furthermore, understanding the brain mechanisms of these functions in the blind will have a wide range of important implications for 'cutting-edge technologies', such as for the development of visual prostheses and other rehabilitation tools. These factors will help them overcome daily challenges, boost mental wellbeing, enable them to develop and become more independent in the society.

In addition to these practical implications, the findings of this study will open the door to further research on tactile perception and tactile neuroaesthetics for blindness rehabilitation, will lead to new models, and give rise to novel research questions for expanded future scientific enquiry.


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Team Members

Rezaul Karim, PhD (Alumni)
Envision Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Alumni) Lora Likova, PhD
ERI Affiliate Scientist

References & Publications

Karim, A. R., Proulx, M. J., & Likova, L. T. (2016). Anticlockwise or clockwise? A dynamic Perception-Action-Laterality model for directionality bias in visuospatial functioning. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 669-693.

Karim, A. K. M. R., & Kojima, H. (2010a). Configurational asymmetry in vernier offset detection. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 6, 66-78.

Karim, A. K. M. R., & Kojima, H. (2010b). Perceptual asymmetry in vernier offset discrimination: A similar trend between the cardinal and oblique orientations. The Japanese Journal of Psychonomic Science, 29, 1-16.

Karim, A. K. M. R., & Kojima, H. (2010c). The what and why of perceptual asymmetries in the visual domain. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 6, 103-115.

Likova, L. T. (2012a). Drawing enhances cross-modal memory plasticity in the human brain: A case study
in a totally blind adult
. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(44). 1-15.

Likova, L. T. (2012b). Plastic reorganization to form dissociated networks for perceptual encoding and
memory recall in congenital blindness
. European Conference on Visual Perception. Algero, Italy; Perception, 41 (Suppl, p. 66).

Likova, L.T. (2013). A cross-modal perspective on the relationships between imagery and working memory. Front.Psychology, 3(561). 1-14.

Likova, L. T. (2014). Learning-based cross-modal plasticity in the human brain: Insights from visual deprivation fMRI. In Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease - Methods and Applications. Editor Papageorgiou TD, Christopoulos GI, Smirnakis SM. Intech Press, Ch 13, 327-358.