How the Sense of Touch Determines Thought

Professor Dr. Tobias Heed leading new research group at CITEC

The sense of touch is the earliest human sense: in utero, a fetus already perceives itself and its environment through touch. A new research group at CITEC is investigating how the sense of touch directs human thought. Psychology Professor Dr. Tobias Heed heads the group “Biopsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience.”

Prof. Dr. Tobias Heed investigates how the human brain processes touch. Photo: CITEC/Bielefeld University“The human body is equppied with senses, from touch to sight. And these sensors define how we can think,” says Heed. “Skin is the boundary between the body and the environment, and for this reason, skin plays a particularly important role in self-perception.” Dr. Heed specializes in how the brain registers its body and environment through touch and movement. In September 2016, Heed was appointed professor to the Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science at Bielefeld University. Since the beginning of this year, his new research group has been fully staffed.

Tobias Heed studied business administration at the Berufsakademie Stuttgart (University of Cooperative Education Stuttgart) and psychology at the Philipps Universität Marburg. Before his appointment as professor at Bielefeld University, Dr. Heed worked for 13 years at the University of Hamburg, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on how humans perceive space through the sense of touch. In 2012, he was selected to participate in the Emmy-Noether-Program of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), for which he received around one million Euro in funding to set up the “Reach & Touch Lab.”

Currently, five researchers are working on Dr. Heed’s team, including psychologists Dr. Boukje Habets, Dr. Marie Martel, and Xaver Fuchs, neuroscientist Kenan Suljic, and sports scientist Dr. Christian Seegelke. At the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, this team is involved in the large-scale project ICSpace, a training environment in virtual room that provides coaching for sports exercises. The project is researching, for instance, which types of feedback study participants need in order to improve their motor skills. The research conducted by Heed’s team is also relevant to other CITEC projects such as Famula. In this large-scale project, two robotic hands are learning to familiarize themselves with unfamiliar objects, and Heed’s research group is providing input on how this process of acquisition works in humans.

Dr. Heed explores how the human brain plans and controls movements while taking touch into account, for example, what happens when the brain notices a fly on the arm and calls upon the hand to brush the insect away. “We use our hands as tools to feel out and manipulate our environment. Our skin and body parts are always in motion. A big question is thus how the brain translates a touch of the skin into a spatial location. How does the brain incorporate the position and posture of every body part in order to situate these touches in space? Touch is necessary to evaluate the environment and to decide what the next thing to do is. “In many situations, there are many paths that can be used to arrive at our goals. For instance, you could open a door with your left hand instead of your right if you are holding a shopping bag in your right hand. Alternatively, you could push the door handle with your elbow, knee, or foot.” In his research, this has led Heed to the question of how the brain manages to provide the different possible actions and choose from among them.

In order to find out how consciousness of one’s body develops, Heed’s research group also wants to investigate the behavior of children who are physically clumsy, such as those who frequently stumble and fall. “This behavior indicates that it is difficult for the brain to precisely perceive the body. If we can figure out what is disrupting the connection between the body and brain, we will also find out how this link normally functions.” These findings could be used, for instance, in training programs to improve physical awareness of one’s body.

Psychology often deals with measuring abstract concepts like intelligence or social interaction. “We, however, are dedicated first to the basic abilities of touch and grasping, without which such abstract phenomena would not even be possible.” This is because the same areas in the brain that are responsible for grasping also control, according to Heed, complex capabilities like one’s perception of body and space. “And the ability to count is based on spatial perception, among other things. So, first we have to understand the underlying capabilities in order to also be able to decipher complex processes,” concludes Heed.

Professor Dr. Tobias Heed, Bielefeld University
Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science
Telephone: 0049 521 106- 67530