In a Sensory Hack, What You Touch Affects What You See

By Eliza Strickland | April 10, 2009 10:52 am

fingertipScientists have found that manipulating a person’s sense of touch can confuse their sense of sight, an intriguing finding that suggests that touch and vision are integrated in the human brain…. For decades, instructors in medical schools have taught students that the senses —including vision, touch and sound — are interpreted in different, discrete parts of the brain, says Michael Beauchamp of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. “Now it turns out what we’re teaching them is wrong,” he says. “There’s a lot more cross talk between the modalities” [Science News]. 

In the experiment, which will be published in an upcoming Current Biology, researchers used a postage stamp-sized device that used tiny pins to stroke the test subject’s finger in either an upward or downward direction. When subjects watched a stationary stripe on a computer screen after a machine stroked their fingertips, the motion of the stroking created the illusion that the stripe was moving [ScienceNOW Daily News].

The illusion also worked in the opposite direction: People who watched lines on a screen move up were more likely to interpret patternless touches from pin rows as moving down. “These two things [touch and vision] are able to push each other around more than we thought” [Science News], says lead researcher Christopher Moore.

Previous experiments over the past five years have hinted that the senses can become entwined. Experiments with blind subjects, for example, have found that reading Braille by touch can trigger activity in the brain’s visual cortex…. [But researchers] attributed the phenomenon to the brain rewiring itself to compensate for disability [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The new study suggests that the sight-touch linkage may be present in everyone’s brain.

Related Content:
80beats: Revealed: The Genetic Root of Seeing Sounds and Tasting Colors
80beats: Fingerprints Are Tuned to Amplify Vibrations and Send Info to the Brain
DISCOVER: The Blind Climber Who “Sees” With His Tongue

Image: flickr / Editor B

MORE ABOUT: senses, touch, vision
  • Nick

    The brain is more complex and wonderful than we can possibly imagine at this stage. About the only thing I can say for certain is that it will continually surprise us.

    Oh, and just WAIT until we figure out where consciousness comes from. That may even help us solve the quantum enigma, i.e. why is a (possibly conscious) observer needed to create everyday reality out of the quantum substrate we exist in – quantum probabilities exist in every state until observed, when they collapse into what we perceive. It’s so perplexing they don’t even try to explain in it school, they just say it happens and move on.

  • Bob Snyder

    “Experiments with blind subjects, for example, have found that reading Braille by touch…” Is there any other way to read Braille if you’re blind?

  • notthisbody

    This is synesthesia…a union of the senses.

    There’s a theory put out by Richard Cytowic, a major synesthesia researcher, who says that we are all synesthetic, but the cross-talk between senses is limited in ‘normal’ brains. With the progression of technology, soon maybe we’ll have proof that we are all synesthetes & a way to open up those channels of cross-talk between senses more than they already are.

  • Blue Fire

    Synesthesia: a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. – Wikipedia

    I’ve read reports of synesthetes who smelled colors or who saw numbers as colors, and other odd combinations. While what the article decribes certainly seems quite related to synesthesia, it might more accurately be described as illusion (as the article says) since the sensory experiences are induced by artificial means and presumably could be overcome, or “seen through”, if the subject was alerted to and aware of the manipulation being attempted – much like visual illusions can be counteracted by conscious effort and critical inspection. For example, many line-length illusions no longer work on me since I seem to naturally inspect scenes critically now after seeing a few of them. Either way, synesthesia, or illusion, it’s a fascinating field of study.

  • Jerryactric John

    who da leet haxor lol

  • Cordless Drills

    Does it work the other way round? What you see affects what it feels like?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar