GF Smith

Information pieces for interactive display

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The science of physical touch

Our skin consists of many types of sensors, each designed to detect or sense specific stimuli such as vibration, pressure, temperature or pain. These various sensations are transmitted via the spine to be processed as information in the brain’s somatosensory cortices.

Our fingertips contain clusters or corpuscles of cells designed to read fine tactile form.

It is through the sense of touch that we distinguish between what is inside and outside. The ability to touch determines where our bodies end and the world outside begins.

We can’t tickle ourselves or properly feel the sensation of the clothes we wear because as a matter of survival we have evolved the ability to switch off the touch of our own bodies. We need to feel the difference between us and everything else.

The emotion of touch

As humans, we are profoundly tactile. Touch is the first sense formed in utero. It is the initial and primary form of communication when very young. It forms the moral basis of our humanity. Neither primitive nor peripheral, it is how we know we are alive. It is consciousness itself.

When we touch something, our brain processes it both physically and emotionally.

Whereas the sensation of what we physically feel is determined by our ability to distinguish the difference between temperatures, surface textures and the density of the thing touched, we also process the experience emotionally.

There is no such thing as sensation without emotion.  All touch has meaning. It’s social. It helps us learn. It’s an immensely powerful form of communication.

The context of touch

How exactly we feel about the experience of the sensation of touching or being touched depends on the context of that experience. Though perhaps sensationally the same, a doctor’s touch provokes an entirely different set of emotions to the touch of a lover.

Studies conducted in orphanages in Romania during the Ceausescua regime show that when we are deprived at an early age of touch, we develop a suite of lifelong physical, mental and emotional problems. Being touched with love is essential to our wellbeing.

In the context of the museum or the art gallery, the tyranny of the eye is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not so long ago, it was absolutely expected that we should handle objects. Touch was considered essential to knowledge.

Touching paper

We feel the detailed texture of this paper because our fingertips contain groups of so-called merkel endings, clusters of cells that have evolved to sense fine tactile form.

Seen up close, the surface of a beautifully made paper possesses a topography all of its own. It is this very topography that our fingertips sense.

More than likely, the feel of this paper will be experienced as both sensation and emotion. The facts of its fine tactile form are processed as a physical sensation. Beyond this, we find meaning in the context of the moment. There is a sense of something concrete in the touch of paper. It evokes half-forgotten memories.  We appreciate the craft of the well-made. Whether we know it or not, we sense its history. All this and more serves to add meaning to the sensation of touch.

The so-called endowment effect holds that touching a thing such as well-made paper adds value to the message it communicates.

The theory of incidental touch has it that we associate the qualities of an object with those of its owner. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the quality of a paper we choose to communicate with speaks volumes.

Touch has the effect of making us remember. We remember information printed on paper better – and we remember best of all information printed on quality paper.

Reading on paper

The physicality of the print on paper is immediately tangible. The paper rustles; it folds; it has weight, size, a shape; it has corners, a back. The letters are more keenly felt, their shape and touch in the first instance understood as physical objects. It’s a depth and type of tactility unmatched by anything we can do with the screen.

For all the undeniable advances of technology, there is nothing in the world of the e-book to compare to the haptic harmony of the physical book. Where one is always a single screen of ephemeral words, the other is the heft of a thing in the hand, its major orientating features – cover, where pages sit in relation to the front and the back, shape, thickness of pages read and unread – allowing us to better construct a mental map of the whole text.

When it comes to reading for understanding, even digital natives prefer paper, with studies showing that the majority of millenials claiming to find it easier to absorb complex information via the printed word than those on the screen.