I visited the Colby Museum of Art with the neuroscience seminar class a few weeks ago. Our task was to find an aesthetically beautiful painting and studied the cognitive processes of perceiving the artwork by focusing on physiological and emotional changes responding to the artwork. “Please do not touch the art and keep a few feet away from a work of art, since artwork is so fragile that can be damaged even by clean hands,” our professor Melissa explained before we dismissed to explore the museum on our own.
It was not my first time visiting a museum, so of course I know rules of museum etiquette. However, after examining my favorite sculpture, named Good Morning by Erastus Dow Palmer, to study what key attributes of this sculpture make me think it’s beautiful, I suddenly had a strong desire to touch the sculpture to feel the temperature and texture of the white marble used in the sculpture. This was the first time I had the desire to touch a piece of art in a museum. Jumping a few steps back to stay away from the artwork, I tried to suppress my desire. My heartbeat was speeding up, partially because I was excited for my desire for touching, but mainly because I was afraid my potential misbehavior of ignoring the museum etiquette would be found out by other visitors.
“Calm down,” I tried to comfort myself, “You didn’t do anything violating the rule. You controlled yourself well.” After recovering from the panic attack caused by my evil intention of touching (a.k.a. damaging) a beautiful piece of art, I found this unusual experience of touching interesting. Artwork is perceived visually in most contexts. Visual information of shape, light, luminescence and etc. of a painting is sent through the visual pathways to the visual cortex of the brain. Tactile sensation doesn’t fit into this framework of perceiving art dominated by vision at all, so why museum visitors, including me, want to touch a piece of art? What benefits will they gain through touching? What role does tactile sensation play in perception of art?
I started my research on tactile aesthetics when I got back. To my surprise, among other senses, touch is the first to develop. Embryos are sensitive to tactile simulation before the 8th week of gestation (Gallace & Spence, 2014). In addition to its primitivity, the tactile system is very sensitive. All receptors have a relatively low threshold that they can be activated by weak stimulation to produce action potentials. The action potentials are transmitted by large myelinated axons, which speed up the transmission of tactile information. The low threshold and the rapid transmission make tactile system really sensitive (Purves, 2012).
Various types of receptors provide information of touch, pressure, vibration, cutaneous tension, temperature, and pain to the central nervous system, which cannot be detected by our eyes. For example, vision can only detect the color, lighting, shape, and size of the sculpture I saw in the museum. Though noting that the sculpture was made of marble implied the information about texture, weight, and temperature, I can only learn the information of texture by touching when the material information is vague. Imagine this situation: what if the material seems like marble, but is actually something else? An English traveler had such experience before. She noted that a cane “which looks like a solid heavy thing but if you take it in your hands [is] as light as a feather” (Fiennes, 1949, p. 33, cited in Gallace & Spence, 2014) on her visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1694. The English traveler’s story demonstrated that touch offers unique access to information, especially when visual information doesn’t match our tactile feelings. In fact, a lot of artists utilize our over reliance on vision and forbidden access to touch to deceive the eyes. The technique called Trompe-l’œil (French for “deceive the eye”) creates an optical illusion of three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional canvas. In the example below, can you believe that the coffee cup was created by optical illusion? It just looks so real! But if you every have an opportunity to touch it, you will notice that it was painted on the ground. Our eyes can be easily deceived if touch is not used.
Touch can offer unique information regarding the texture, mass, and temperature of an object, which cannot be revealed by vision. However, I have already learned that the sculpture was made of marble and could imagine how it might feel, so what made me want to touch the sculpture ? The answer is simple. Because I thought that sculpture was beautiful! Kaplan (1987) argued that mystery makes a natural scene more favored than another. Mystery refers to how much a natural scene can stimulate people’s desire to explore. Roads and streams that can take viewers to enter and discover the obstructed scenes give a sense of mystery. Therefore, the desire to explore is part of aesthetic standard for natural scenery.
If Kaplan’s theory (1987) can be applied to other scenarios, my desire to touch can be explained. Comparing to vision, touch is more closely related to exploration, due to the involvement of motor system (e.g., reach out to touch, move fingers around to feel the texture). When motor system is not involved, tactile system may not be sensitive. In a study with “tactile vision substitution systems” (TVVS; Bachy-y-Rita & Kercel, 2003), which translated environmental stimuli captured by a video camera into elecctrotactile patterns stimulated the back of the blind, participants were only able to identify the stimulation patterns on their back when they actively moved around the camera. This study demonstrated the importance of the engagement of motor system in tactile perception. Thus, my desire to touch the sculpture can be translated, as “I want to explore the sculpture with my fingers because it is so beautiful”.
After learning the neuroscience of touch, I don’t feel ashamed for my desire to touch a piece of artwork any more. It’s just the way how I express my love.
Bach-y-Rita, P., & Kercel, S. W. (2003). Sensory substitution and the human–machine interface. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(12), 541-546.
Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2014). In touch with the future: The sense of touch from cognitive neuroscience to virtual reality. OUP Oxford.
Kaplan, S. (1987). Aesthetics, affect, and cognition environmental preference from an evolutionary perspective. Environment and behavior, 19(1), 3-32.
Purves, D. (2012). Neuroscience. Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates.
Szolosi, A. M., Watson, J. M., & Ruddell, E. J. (2014). The benefits of mystery in nature on attention: assessing the impacts of presentation duration.Frontiers in psychology, 5.
White, B. W., Saunders, F. A., Scadden, L., Bach-y-Rita, P., & Collins, C. C. (1970). Seeing with the skin. Perception & Psychophysics, 7(1), 23-27.