Learning effects in haptic perception

Hubert R. Dinse, Claudia Wilimzig and Tobias Kalisch


Human haptic perception is not a constant, but subject to manifold modifications throughout lifespan. Major determinants are development and aging as well as alterations following injury and compensatory brain reorganization. While during early development haptic perception is refined due to maturation and experience, haptic perception during aging deteriorates due to many factors, not all of them fully understood. Besides these lifespan factors, it is common wisdom that haptic perception and skills in general improve through practice (Fig. 1), see also [1]. Perceptual learning involves relatively long-lasting changes to an organism’s perceptual system that improve its ability to respond to its environment and are caused by this environment. In case of Blinds or in Musicians, both characterized by superior haptic perception, improvement is assumed to be due to use-dependent or experience-dependent neuroplasticity mechanisms. In any case, enhanced haptic perception is due to learning processes occurring in brain areas devoted to processing of haptic information. Modeling these processes not only contributes to a better understanding of perceptual learning, but also of cortical processing constraints present under baseline conditions.

Hierarchy of tactile-haptic performance

Gibson [2] defined the haptic system as “The sensibility of the individual to the world adjacent to his body by use of his body”. The haptic perceptual system includes the peripheral receptors and is closely linked to the movement of the body. Many people have emphasized that haptic perception is closely linked to the concept of active touch. In our studies on haptic learning we refer to the idea of a hierarchy of tasks and task complexities that differentially involves in a graded way influences from the periphery, cortical processing with differing amount of cognitive demand, and tasks including motor aspect such as fine motor performance. Haptic learning can target specific tasks without necessarily altering the entire hierarchy. The investigation of either connected or unrelated aspects of tactile and haptic performance can help to unravel underlying mechanisms of haptic performance.