Sensory systems are designed to extract behaviorally relevant information from the environment. In seeking to understand a sensory system, it is important to understand the environment within which it operates. In the present study, we seek to characterize the natural scenes of tactile texture perception. During tactile exploration complex high-frequency vibrations are elicited in the fingertip skin, and these vibrations are thought to carry information about the surface texture of manipulated objects. How these texture-elicited vibrations depend on surface microgeometry and on the biomechanical properties of the fingertip skin itself remains to be elucidated. Here we record skin vibrations, using a laser-Doppler vibrometer, as various textured surfaces are scanned across the finger. We find that the frequency composition of elicited vibrations is texture specific and highly repeatable. In fact, textures can be classified with high accuracy on the basis of the vibrations they elicit in the skin. As might be expected, some aspects of surface microgeometry are directly reflected in the skin vibrations. However, texture vibrations are also determined in part by fingerprint geometry. This mechanism enhances textural features that are too small to be resolved spatially, given the limited spatial resolution of the neural signal. We conclude that it is impossible to understand the neural basis of texture perception without first characterizing the skin vibrations that drive neural responses, given the complex dependence of skin vibrations on both surface microgeometry and fingertip biomechanics.
Keywords: skin oscillations; somatosensory periphery; texture perception.