Feeling form: the neural basis of haptic shape perception

J Neurophysiol. 2016 Feb 1;115(2):631-42. doi: 10.1152/jn.00598.2015. Epub 2015 Nov 18.


The tactile perception of the shape of objects critically guides our ability to interact with them. In this review, we describe how shape information is processed as it ascends the somatosensory neuraxis of primates. At the somatosensory periphery, spatial form is represented in the spatial patterns of activation evoked across populations of mechanoreceptive afferents. In the cerebral cortex, neurons respond selectively to particular spatial features, like orientation and curvature. While feature selectivity of neurons in the earlier processing stages can be understood in terms of linear receptive field models, higher order somatosensory neurons exhibit nonlinear response properties that result in tuning for more complex geometrical features. In fact, tactile shape processing bears remarkable analogies to its visual counterpart and the two may rely on shared neural circuitry. Furthermore, one of the unique aspects of primate somatosensation is that it contains a deformable sensory sheet. Because the relative positions of cutaneous mechanoreceptors depend on the conformation of the hand, the haptic perception of three-dimensional objects requires the integration of cutaneous and proprioceptive signals, an integration that is observed throughout somatosensory cortex.

Keywords: neural coding; neurophysiology; objects; perception; shape; tactile; touch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Touch
  • Touch Perception*