Corbett Inc. • Dec 15, 2020 • 6 min read
The Experience of Touch

Pressure, temperature, light, vibration, pain are just some of the stimuli that make up the sense of touch. These distinct sensations are communicated to the brain through specialized neurons in the skin. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, touch is the first sense to develop in humans at about eight weeks into the gestation period.

Touch isn’t just a sense used to interact with the world – it is a sense that is vital to human well-being. Touch is a way that we convey compassion from one human to another.

Touch influences the release of endorphins which can affect how we make decisions and can even reduce blood pressure and heart rate. The sense of touch is a major component in how we interact with each other, how we think about people and places, and how we distinguish between emotions like happy, sad, stressed and relaxed. Different elements of touch contribute to this sense and allow us to form unique experiences.  

Ultimately, the goal of an interior environment is to move forward the intention of a space and engage the user in meaningful ways. Using the sense of touch, we can captivate the human mind and depict the intention behind a certain space.

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Discriminative Touch

Discriminative touch, also known as fine touch, provides the facts about what we are touching or where we have been touched. This part of our touch system is very important for accurate and precise motor skills. For example, if you are touching a spider web while also looking at it, your senses together will tell you that you are touching a spider web, which is unpleasant for most people, and you would most likely move your hand away from the web. If you close your eyes and use only touch to decipher what is happening, your brain will realize that what you are touching is sticky, delicate, and very thin. These are just the facts, without your emotions getting involved.  

Emotional Touch

The emotional touch system is mediated by special sensors called C tactile fibers, and it conveys information slowly. In terms of where the touch is happening, the information that is sent to the brain is quite vague. However, the information is sent to a part of the brain called the posterior insula, which is crucial for socially-bonded touch. This kind of touch ranges from a hug from a friend, to the loving touch from your mother, to sexual touch from a partner. Whereas discriminative touch tells you what you are touching, emotional touch tells you how you feel when touching something, and your brain uses that information to form a social bond with someone.  

When forming a design for an interior space, it is important to combine both discriminative and emotional touch. Users should be informed about what materials they are touching, while also feeling emotions based on the textures, density and temperature of what they are touching.  A space needs to be emotionally appealing, well-designed and intentionally thought out.

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Human Touch Can Save Your Life

A life without human touch is not a life at all. Vast studies have been done regarding the different types of human touch and how they can affect the way we feel, think and react. A study done by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine discovered that massage increases natural killer cells, which are on the front lines of the immune system. These cells are essential for fighting diseases such as HIV and cancer. Massage drastically lowers cortisol levels, which is the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol actually kills natural killer cells, so by reducing this stress hormone, we are actively saving the natural killer cells and allowing the body to fight off illness as it should. In a way, touch is therapeutic, and brings us a unique medicine that we cannot get anywhere else.  

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine also did research on Romanian orphans, who did not experience sufficient touch in their daily lives. The research shows that these children were very growth-deprived and exhibited autistic tendencies. Many of the children were only half of their expected height and weight for their age. Although they were getting adequate nutrition at the orphanage, the lack of touch had such a huge impact on them that they looked as if they were starving.

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First Impressions

Studies have proven that the sense of touch can impact meeting someone for the first time.

A study featured in the National Library of Medicine shows that when people were holding either a cold iced drink or a hot drink when meeting someone, those with a hot drink literally rated the people they met as warmer — as in, having a more pro-social personality.

They didn't rate them as smarter or more competent, they just rated them as warmer.

The University of Amsterdam completed a study in which people evaluated others' resumes on a clipboard. If a resume was on a heavy clipboard rather than a light one, the readers rated the people as having more authority. Again, the readers didn't think the people were smarter, or better team players, nor did they note anything particular from someone’s resume. The weight simply effected their first impression.  

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Engaging with the Sense of Touch Creates Meaningful Designs

When it comes to design, sight is probably the sense we refer to the most. When we look at a piece of furniture, we decide whether it’s aesthetically pleasing. We can get an idea if it’s of good quality or not. We can anticipate how it might behave when we use it. Our sense of touch can tell us this information as well, just in a different way. We can tell if a chair is comfortable or not after sitting in it for just a few moments. We can feel whether a carpet is plush or flat when we walk across it. We can hear the difference in materials, as a space with lots of soft texture will be quieter than an open space with flat, shiny surfaces. Touch informs our feelings about a space and tells us how we can use it for its intended purpose.  

Chris Downey, world-renowned architect who is also blind, uses the sense of touch in all of his designs. In his design for the Flint House, which is located in Buckinghamshire, he used something he calls the “building handshake.” Because he uses his sense of touch first, he often thinks about how someone “meets” a space, so he created this technique as a way to introduce the Flint House to people through touch. He added texture and depth to the things everyone touches – door handles, railings, countertops, walls, and floors.

“The act of drawing makes you focus on all the little details and realize how the building is put together,” he explains. “We think about how these things look. We should think about how they fit the body.”

Sensory Design

As humans who experience all of our senses daily, we don’t always take into consideration how our senses interact. Our senses are like fireworks - a sudden spray of color is triggered by a word, touch, letter, or sound. The human mind has a gift for connecting sensations—we link tastes and colors, sounds and spaces. Some people who are deaf or blind become profoundly in tune with other senses. They begin using areas of the brain that are typically connected to sight and sound to process information. People perceive objects and spaces with sound and touch as well as with vision. Sensory design supports everyone’s opportunity to receive information, explore the world, and experience joy, wonder, and social connections, regardless of our sensory abilities.

The Sense of Touch in Your Life

When you are choosing materials for a project, consider how those materials convey your design through touch. The way that the material enriches the intent and experience of a space is important. The way that people engage with it, and how the material behaves and performs is something you need to think about. Overall, how it contributes to the physical and emotional experience of the user is what you want to focus on. People should feel positive after experiencing the sense of touch in any space, and your goal is to make that happen.  

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