How the Brain Reacts to Touch

“B hoch 3” Kid’s Lab investigating development in children and adolescents

Researchers at the “B hoch 3” (B to the Power of 3) Kid’s Lab work with babies, kids, and teens to uncover how the brain in growing children processes touch, how the brain moves the body, and how the brain thus comprehends the world. Researchers from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) are also working on this research.

At the “B hoch 3” Kid’s Lab, researchers work with babies, kids, and teens to uncover how the brain in growing children processes touch, how the brain moves the body, and how the brain thus comprehends the world.How do children and adolescents process touch? What happens in their brains? How does the brain manage to perform spatial movement? How does the brain control an arm that has just grown? Researchers at Bielefeld University’s “B hoch 3” Kid’s Lab deal with questions such as these. The abbreviation stands for the German terms “berühren” (touch), “bewegen” (move), and “begreifen” (understand) – the research topics addressed at this lab.
Dr. Boukje Habets heads the Kid’s Lab, which was founded in Bielefeld in 2016. As she explains, “When we move, the brain doesn’t just process visual impressions, but also the input that arises from movement.” At the lab, the researchers investigate how the brain senses the border between the body and the environment and how it interacts with the world via the skin.

For this research, the focus is on children and adolescents. “We want to understand the process of normal development,” says Habets. “From these findings, we hope that will be able to develop approaches to detect developmental disorders at an early stage, which would allow us to better address them.”

Research on children and adolescents is conducted in very different ways. “It is always the case that the investigations are painless and safe,” says Habets. They are also adjusted to the child’s age – with a baby, for instance, it only lasts for a few minutes.

“We record the activity of the brain in order to better understand, for example, what actually happens when a child senses a touch,” explains the researcher. Brain activity can be measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

But other methods can also be used, such as motion tracking. For this, small lighted dots are placed on the body. A camera system records the lights, allowing movements and their speed to be very precisely recorded. The particular method used always depends on the aim of the study and the data that is to be collected for it.

One of the researchers at the Kid’s Lab is Dr. Marie Martel, from the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). She works with a special device: the Kinarm. It is equipped with handles that the children hold with both hands, after which the arms, for instance, are moved in a certain direction or a certain motion. “The device measures these motions very precisely,” says Dr. Martel.

But there is also more: it is also possible for the Kinarm to exert a subtle opposing force in order to observe how quickly and how strongly a child reacts to it. From this, conclusions can be drawn regarding, for instance, what sensory information children of different ages prefer to process. “We have already collected a large amount of data, but the study is still not finished,” says Martel. She hopes that she will be able to publish preliminary findings this summer.

Other methods involve children crossing their arms and legs while they solve a touch-based task. “With this, you can confuse the brain a bit,” says Martel. Small stimulators that vibrate slightly are also used in this research. “The children have to determine where it vibrated on their body,” says Martel. This task is about correctly locating touch.

The aim of these studies is not just to better understand the development of infants, children, and adolescents or to be able to address disorders. “We conduct basic research,” says Habets. “This research also encompasses questions about how the body moves in space and how one develops consciousness about the borders of one’s body.” Potential applications include, for instance, innovations for virtual reality and robotics.

In any case, it is not always easy to get parents and their children for this research, according to both Martel and Habets. “We do a good deal of public outreach and invite school classes to visit us and show them the lab,” says Habets. “With this, the children learn a lot about the way the brain works.”  During these visits, parents are also given information about the lab. “We hope to arouse interest in our research with this,” says Habets. “Children who participate in a study receive a gift from us, and travel costs are reimbursed. We are also planning to publish a newsletter so that we can share the findings of our research with parents.”

“B hoch 3” Kid’s Lab The Kid’s Lab is always looking for infants, children, and adults who would like to participate in studies. Those interested are encouraged to contact the “B hoch 3” Kid’s Lab at Bielefeld University at:  
FB: @Bhoch3Kinderlabor




More information is available online at:

Dr. Boukje HabetsDr. Boukje Habets
Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science / Biopsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience
Telephone: 0512 106 67 533





Dr. Marie MartelDr. Marie Martel
Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science / Cluster of Excellence – Cognitive Interaction Technology CITEC
Telephone: 0512 106 67 532





Written by: Maria Berentzen