Tactile speed scaling: contributions of time and space

J Neurophysiol. 2008 Mar;99(3):1422-34. doi: 10.1152/jn.01209.2007. Epub 2008 Jan 16.


A major challenge for the brain is to extract precise information about the attributes of tactile stimuli from signals that co-vary with multiple parameters, e.g., speed and texture in the case of scanning movements. We determined the ability of humans to estimate the tangential speed of surfaces moved under the stationary fingertip and the extent to which the physical characteristics of the surfaces modify speed perception. Scanning speed ranged from 33 to 110 mm/s (duration of motion constant). Subjects could scale tactile scanning speed, but surface structure was essential because the subjects were poor at scaling the speed of a moving smooth surface. For textured surfaces, subjective magnitude estimates increased linearly across the range of speeds tested. The spatial characteristics of the surfaces influenced speed perception, with the roughest surface (8 mm spatial period, SP) being perceived as moving 15% slower than the smoother, textured surfaces (2-3 mm SP). Neither dot disposition (periodic, non periodic) nor dot density contributed to the results, suggesting that the critical factor was dot spacing in the direction of the scan. A single monotonic relation between subjective speed and temporal frequency (speed/SP) was obtained when the ratings were normalized for SP. This provides clear predictions for identifying those cortical neurons that play a critical role in tactile motion perception and the underlying neuronal code. Finally, the results were consistent with observations in the visual system (decreased subjective speed with a decrease in spatial frequency, 1/SP), suggesting that stimulus motion is processed similarly in both sensory systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Touch*