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The Outer Brain: Ten Amazing Ways the Skin and Brain Connect - Eight

What are the connections between touch, sight, hearing, and mental illness?

The research is provocative but still inconclusive. How does touch, vision, and the brain interact with mental illness? Are there levels of brain-tactile dysfunctions in a continuum just as there is with autism and schizophrenia? No congenitally blind person has been shown to have schizophrenia. Why do psychopaths have such high pain thresholds?

ScienceDaily reports, “Shakespeare famously referred to ‘the mind's eye,’ but scientists at USC now also have identified a ‘mind's touch.’” USC scientists have discovered that as you look at an object, your brain not only processes what the object looks like but remembers what it feels like to touch it as well. This connection is so strong that a computer examining data coming only from the part of your brain that processes touch can predict which object at which you are actually looking at.

Building on previous work demonstrating a comparable link between the visual and auditory sectors of the brain, Antonio and Hanna Damasio's research group at the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute used magnetic resonance brain scans and specially programmed computers to explore how memory and the senses interact. The findings appeared in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The Damasio team asked a group of participants to watch five video clips of hands touching various objects, then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the part of the participants' brains that is responsible for processing touch sensations.

When a specially programmed computer was given the data generated by the scan, the computer was able to accurately predict, just based on how the "tactile" part of the cerebral cortex had reacted, which of the five video clips the participant had been seeing.

"When asked to imagine the difference between touching a cold, slick piece of metal and the warm fur of a kitten, most people admit that they can literally 'feel' the two sensations in their 'mind's touch,' " said Kaspar Meyer, the lead author of the study.

"The same happened to our subjects when we showed them video clips of hands touching varied objects," he said. "Our results show that 'feeling with the mind's touch' activates the same parts of the brain that would respond to actual touch."

The ScienceDaily author notes that, “Human brains capture and store physical sensations, and then replay them when prompted by viewing the corresponding visual image.”

I spoke with my friend Chelsea, who is a blind massage therapist who had attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB).  After she graduated she went to a technical college. I asked her about her school and work. “We learned anatomy, physiology, science, body mechanics and did massage for seven months,” Chelsea said.

“You said you close your eyes when you work on clients. Does that help you with your tactile ability and concentration?” I asked. “I know with a sighted person like myself many times, for example, when I listen to music I like to close my eyes because I don't want all the distractions of looking around the room.  I just want to sense and feel the music. Is this a similar feeling?”

“Yes, I think closing my eyes gives me extra concentration and focus.” Chelsea said.  “I think I bring a positive energy to my clients. I always try and be in a good mood and happy focusing on then,” she said. “Sometimes I have my eyes open; it just depends. I usually keep the room dim or low lighting. I like to do a verbal consultation before each client but we have all things documented with an iPad.”

Not all blind people are completely blind, and some can see light or images that may interfere with a full tactile sensation. I asked her about Braille, and she replied, “I do read Braille. I think our fingertips and touch strength are a little bit better because when you lose your sight, your other senses become stronger. You become more aware of your other perceptions and you become more focused and more in tune.”

“Do you take care of all kinds of clients?” I asked.

 “I have worked on thousands of people from seven years old up to 93 years old. I have also become stretch certified.  I like to check in with them throughout the session to make sure everything is good. Today I had six clients, five women and one male. They all were one hour sessions. Sometimes I do 90 minutes sessions. And a variety of people and muscle issues.”

What do we know about the connection between touch and vision? Which blind people are more adept at Braille? What is the relationship between color vision and tactile perception? Do color blind people have heightened or decreased tactile sensation? “You can’t trick a color blind person into seeing color.” Are there tricks between the skin and the brain?

The sense of touch allows us to make a better connection between sight and hearing and therefore helps adults to learn to read. These results should improve learning methods, both for children learning to read and adults learning foreign languages.


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For more information, look at my YouTube series on the Brain-Skin Connections:

The Brain-Skin Connection Series - YouTube

Dr. Robert A. Norman

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