Seeing How You Feel: Multisensory Enhancement Of Touch In Ageing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


Touch perception is important for feeling shapes, textures and materials, for identifying dirty vs clean surfaces, for balance and it can evoke detailed memories or emotions. Being able to discriminate form and detail on surfaces is important for tasks such as discriminating coins in a purse, detecting the quality or wear of fabric, or detecting fine particles of dirt on dishes or surfaces. Receiving high quality information from the skin on fingers helps when dressing (especially for buttons or clasps), sticking stamps or labels and identifying objects or shapes. The ability to sense vibration through the fingertips is important to sense fine detail on surfaces such as wood or paper, and increasingly used to enrich the experience of touch screens. In our recent series of artist facilitated workshops with (healthy) older people it was remarked that a world without a rich experience of tactile texture is bland and dull.

Touch perception declines with age. We are only beginning to understand how this happens but we know that the skin becomes drier and less elastic with age and the number and density of receptors in the skin reduces. There are also losses in the neural and cortical mechanisms for touch. Even in otherwise healthy people, there are many experiences that can reduce touch sensitivity (from conditions such as stroke, neurodegenerative conditions, scarring and callouses). What is less clear is how this impacts on the experience of touch and day to day activities.

In this project we aim to bring together experts from Ireland and the UK to address how touch perception can be both measured and understood, especially with respect to ageing. There are complementary activities and specialisms in the two countries. On the one hand there are valuable longitudinal datasets and multidisciplinary, analytical teams in Ireland providing insights into the role of the ageing process on the senses and multisensory perception (e.g. The Irish Longitudinal study on Ageing (TILDA), the Technology for Independent Living (TRIL) project). On the other hand, in the UK there are teams investigating touch sensitivity behaviourally and psychophysically, combined with computational modelling. This project will bring specialists from these areas, together with interested parties from industry and critical input from those with lived experience to address research in touch.

We have identified multisensory influences on touch as a particular area of focus. Simply being able to see the item being touched can enhance the ability of people to discriminate differences in a touched surface. Importantly, this is true even if the details of the surface are not perceivable. We also know that some surfaces make a characteristic sound as they are stroked or rubbed, and this too influences how they feel: a crunch or a crinkle can make a surface seem rougher or more scratchy for example. This could be valuable as we aim to enhance or improve the experience of touch for older people or those with reduced touch perception. As we age, we are more likely to automatically combine information from multiple senses, so investigating multisensory touch holds promise.

In this project we plan research focused workshops together with a intensive writing retreat to set goals and plan, mirrored across both countries to increase reach and capacity. These activities will occur with engagement and involvement of key representative groups, particularly older people but also potential industry partners, to ensure that future programmes on tactile perception take account of pertinent issues raised. This will be integrated with artist facilitated community workshops and panel discussions where participants will reflect on their changing experience of touch and contribute to priority setting for future work. These will build towards a better and more relevant understanding of touch within the project and further work, directed and co-created by older people.


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