Mapping the Internal Geometry of Tactile Space

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A large body of research has shown spatial distortions in the perception of tactile distances on the skin. For example, perceived tactile distance is increased on sensitive compared to less sensitive skin regions, and larger for stimuli oriented along the medio-lateral axis than the proximo-distal axis of the limbs. In this study we aimed to investigate the spatial coherence of these distortions by reconstructing the internal geometry of tactile space using multidimensional scaling (MDS). Participants made verbal estimates of the perceived distance between 2 touches applied sequentially to locations on their left hand. In Experiment 1 we constructed perceptual maps of the dorsum of the left hand, which showed a good fit to the actual configuration of stimulus locations. Critically, these maps also showed clear evidence of spatial distortion, being stretched along the medio-lateral hand axis. Experiment 2 replicated this result and showed that no such distortion is apparent on the palmar surface of the hand. These results show that distortions in perceived tactile distance can be characterized by geometrically simple and coherent deformations of tactile space. We suggest that the internal geometry of tactile space is shaped by the geometry of receptive fields in somatosensory cortex.

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