The sense of touch is perhaps the most underrated sense according to psychologist Martin Arvidsson of Stockholm University in Sweden. In spite of being the elementary sense, we often disregard its true significance in our daily lives. The act of touching, or as we call it, feeling something is indeed extremely fundamental to humans as it is a type of interface between the body and the physical surroundings. Nerves on the outer covering or skin on our body help bridge the outside world to our mind inside. Sense of touch gives us the ability to become aware of the size, form and shape of material objects; of their degree of hardness, roughness, elasticity, etc.; of their temperature; and of other physical characteristics by which we distinguish one material object from another by means of respective reaction to our sense of Touch.
I recall a particular experience I had when I was on a study tour of the Jaisalmer fort in Rajasthan, India. As I wandered through the narrow alleys of the fort, I couldn’t help but touch the surface of the stone walls at every step. It kindled a sort of connection with the place I was in. This fort with its magnificent 800 year old history and undying architectural beauty seemed to transpire itself with every inch of surface that I touched. This made me contemplate, the manner in which us humans interacted or conversed with the surrounding architectural environments. This eventually led me to realise that we in fact engage with our surroundings through touch from our adolescence. Babies innocently feel their way around things fiddling with toys and other objects in a room. Toddlers in a playground use their sense of touch to navigate through slides and tunnels. Parkour athletes rely on their sense of touch to distinguish various types of surfaces and perform slick moves to get from one place to another. Similarly, elderly and handicapped people may also take support from a wall or railing to walk around safely. Needless to say, all of which indicate the presence of elements that depend on the sense of touch to allow humans to perceive and experience their surroundings, be it natural or artificial.
The sense of touch is essentially broken down into two parts, tactile and haptic. Haptic feedback relates to the things you feel from sensors in your muscles, joints, tendons; weight, stretch, joint angles of your arm, hand, wrist, fingers, etc. Imagine holding a coffee-mug in your hand. Haptic feedback tells your brain the approximate size of the mug, its weight, and how you are holding it relative to your body. Tactile feedback is relative to the things you feel in your ‘fingers’ etc., or on the surface. The tissue (for example in your fingers), has a number of different sensors embedded in the skin and right underneath it. They allow your brain to feel things such as vibration, pressure, touch, texture etc.
When applying both these feedback types to architecture, there are a few aspects that come to my mind. In terms of haptic feedback, we can look into the ease of movement through a space due to friction on the flooring, the force required to open a heavy door or easy to operate furniture and indoor components. In terms of tactile feedback, the materials and surface textures are vital factors in helping to design. Dr. David Linden convincingly argues that the “genes, cells and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience.” This means that each one of use can perceive a space uniquely by means of touching the space around us. This can lead to an approach that deals with the way architectural spaces can interact with the occupants. According to Maria Lorena Lehman, Interactive architecture can do more that respond to human behaviour. With feedback, it can begin to actually adapt – evolving in its communication and; therefore, its ability to help occupants. Thus pinpointing a remarkable new strategy in designing for the senses.
1. Dr. David Linden (2015), Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.
2. Mari Lorena Lehman (2009), Maximizing the Sense of Touch in Adaptive Architecture. Available at: http://sensingarchitecture.com/2469/maximizing-the-sense-of-touch-in-adaptive-architecture/
- Tanya Basu, National Geographic (2013), Let Your Fingers Do The Seeing.
Akshay Ashok Salunkhe
IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute