Articulating “Inner Touch”. From Neurophysiological Discovery to Phenomenological Experience
Early neuroscientific studies of somatic sensations – those visceral and often vague feelings experienced as internal to the body – can be likened to the maps drawn up by explorers of unknown lands: exciting, pioneering, and contentious. In 1826 the British neurologist and surgeon Charles Bell famously wrote of a “muscle sense,” and was the first to distinguish between sensory and motor nerves. Some forty years later Henry Charles Bastian, seeking to provide a coherent sense of bodily movement in space, proposed a feedback mechanism between receptors in joints and muscles known as kinesthesis. In 1906 the British neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington coined the term proprioception to describe sensations that arise from having a body. Yet these early cartographies of the nervous system did not converge into an authoritative and unified map. And contemporary thinkers writing about embodiment have provided little by way of remedy. Even today, thinking about internal sensations remains very much disjointed.
In this talk I examine some of the difficulties with articulating first-person experiences of the body. Unlike sight, where the persistence of perspective and image promises epistemological certainty, somatic sensations are fleeting and usually difficult to pinpoint. This modern ocular bias has ensured a lack of in-depth investigation into the nature and origin of somatic sensation. To redress these problems, I draw on Aristotle’s notion of sensory faculty (aesthesis) and its medieval reception as a form of “inner touch.” The idea of inner touch provides an experiential framework for understanding nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neurophysiological discoveries and situates the articulation of experience within an even earlier cartography: one that joins up – or re-articulates – cartographies of the body with embodied experience.
Mark Paterson is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. His books include Consumption and Everyday Life (2005), The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies (2007), and he is currently finishing Seeing with the Hands: Blindness and Philosophy After Descartes and Diderot for Reaktion, which looks at the early modern legacy of conceptualizing the relationship between vision and touch, and what this means for historical and contemporary understandings of blindness and vision impairment. He has published journal articles in literature and social science journals on touch and haptics, and has worked on funded projects in the areas of robot skin, the historical geography of a blind explorer, and the haptic modeling of prehistoric textiles. His next book project, material from which is surveyed in the talk, is How We Became Sensory-Motor: A History of the“Muscle Sense,” Proprioception, and Kinesthesia for Pennsylvania State University Press. His past and current research can be found at www.sensesoftouch.co.uk.