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Tactual discrimination of softness: abilities and mechanisms

  • Srinivasan M
  • LaMotte R
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1. We investigated the ability of humans to tactually discriminate the softness of objects, using novel elastic objects with deformable and rigid surfaces. For objects with deformable surfaces, we cast transparent rubber specimens with variable compliances. For objects with rigid surfaces ("spring cells") we fabricated telescoping hollow cylinders with the inner cylinder supported by several springs. To measure the human discriminability and to isolate the associated information-processing mechanisms, we performed psychophysical experiments under three conditions: 1) active touch with the normal finger, where both tactile and kinesthetic information was available to the subject: 2) active touch with local cutaneous anesthesia, so that only kinesthetic information was available; and 3) passive touch, where a computer-controlled mechanical stimulator brought down the compliant specimens onto the passive fingerpad of the subject, who therefore had only tactile information. 2. We first characterized the mechanical behavior of the human fingerpad and the test objects by determining the relationship between the depth and force of indentation during constant-velocity indentations by a rigid probe. The fingerpad exhibited a pronounced nonlinear behavior in the indentation depth versus force trace such that compliance, as indicated by the local slope of the trace, decreased with increases in indentation depth. The traces for all the rubber specimens were approximately linear, indicating a constant but distinct value of compliance for each specimen. The fingerpad was more compliant than each of the rubber specimens. 3. All the human subjects showed excellent softness discriminability in ranking the rubber specimens by active touch, and the subjective perception of softness correlated one-to-one with the objectively measured compliance. The ability of subjects to discriminate the compliance of spring cells was consistently poorer compared with that of the rubber specimens. 4. For pairwise discrimination of a selected set of rubber specimens, kinesthetic information alone was insufficient. However, tactile information alone was sufficient, even when the velocities and forces of specimen application were randomized. In contrast, for discriminating pairs of spring cells, tactile information alone was insufficient, and both tactile and kinesthetic information were found to be necessary. 5. The differences in the sufficiency of tactile information for the discrimination of the two types of objects can be explained by the mechanics of contact of the fingerpad and its effect on tactile information. For objects with deformable surfaces, the spatial pressure distribution within the contact region depends on both the force applied and the specimen compliance.




Srinivasan, M. A., & LaMotte, R. H. (1996). Tactual discrimination of softness: abilities and mechanisms. In Somesthesis and the Neurobiology of the Somatosensory Cortex (pp. 123–135). Birkhäuser Basel.

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