The thermal diffusivity of an object is a parameter that controls the rate at which heat is extracted from the hand when it touches that object. It is an important feature for distinguishing materials by means of touch. In order to quantitatively describe the ability of human observers to discriminate between materials on the basis of heat extraction rate, we conducted an experiment in which this heat extraction was performed in a controlled way. In different conditions, subjects were repeatedly asked to select from two stimuli the one that cooled faster. The discrimination threshold was around 43% of the extraction rate. A rate that was twice as slow also yielded twice the absolute threshold. When we halved the temperature difference between the beginning and end of the stimulus, the threshold did not change as much. In separate experiments, we investigated the different cues that were available in the stimulus: initial cooling rate and end temperature. Both cues were used for discrimination, but cooling rate seemed to be the most important.
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