British pioneers of research into human haptic perception

Jonathan Cole

The history of early research on haptics in the United Kingdom is, to a large extent, the history of several great men, reflecting in part the relative small numbers engaged in research. There was a golden age for British neurology and neurophysiology at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, before and during the First World War. After this the focus moved to a smaller scale with the work of Adrian and Matthews; for instance, being largely on the mechanism of the nervous impulse and on biophysics rather than on the functioning of larger systems. Such were the successes of such an approach, with the accruing of Nobel Prizes for Adrian and Sherrington, Huxley and Hodgkin, and Katz, that whole system approaches only became in vogue once more within the UK in the latter decades of the last century.

Bell’s handbook

Research on sensorimotor integration in the UK, and arguably elsewhere too, began with Bell. Sir Charles Bell (1774–1842) was a Scottish anatomist, artist, surgeon and physiologist. He is remembered for his eponymous facial palsy, for his long thoracic nerve and for the debate with Magendie over the sensory and motor natures of the dorsal and ventral nerve roots. But it is in his book, The Hand; Its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design, that his enormous contribution to the subject of haptics was made [1]. The work considers many aspects of the hand, from comparative anatomy to even substitution of other organs for it. At one point he even discusses how animals were suited to the progressive changes in the earth and the elements, without taking any further steps towards Darwin. But the heart of the book is on what today we might call neuroscience, both experimental and theoretical.1
Throughout this rich and beautifully illustrated work (Bell was an accomplished artist), he also reveals the depth of his thought and his insights many of which appear to have been based on deduction.2 He drew attention to the complexities of even a simple movement, which appear to have largely been taken for granted, “we use our limbs without being conscious, or at least, without any conception of the thousand parts which must conform to a single act… by an effort of the cultivated mind we must rouse ourselves to observe things and actions of which sense has been lost by long familiarity.”