David McGonigle


Don’t touch? The Body as Object.

Dr. David McGonigle: Lecturer CUBRIC, 

Schools of Psychology and Biosciences,

Cardiff University

‘Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth’. How many of us use the first part of this aphorism, yet are unaware of the latter half? In our richly media-saturated world, dense with visual information, it may seemingly make sense to place vision on a pedestal. The English language is littered with phrases that focus on our sense of sight: we talk of going to ‘see’ a film or play, negating the heard aspect of the experience; ‘you see’ is frequently evoked as a means by which to convince another of the veracity of an argument, even when the argument is likely to have been in written or spoken form.

In neuroscience, the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, vision is undeniably the most intensely studied of all the senses. From pioneering neurophysiological experiments in the 1960s to more recent explorations with brain imaging technology, we now know a great deal about how the visual world is constructed from the retina of the eye to the visual cortex of the brain.

Yet it is to the sense of touch that we turn when seeking to truly anchor ourselves, to link the subjective world of sensory experience to something more tangible. The somatosensory or tactile senses convey information from skin, joints and muscles to the spinal cord and hence to the brain: but unlike vision or audition, the somatosensory system has at its core a fascinating dichotomy. When we brush an external object with our fingertips, we are aware of both the object’s properties – its texture, weight, the myriad of imperfections across its surface – but also of the position of our hand in the world as it samples the very same object. A source of study since the beginnings of empirical philosophy, this dual nature of touch has fascinated and infuriated in equal measure. In Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), perhaps the best exploration of what is now called ‘embodied cognition’, the experience of one hand touching another is brought vividly to life:

“This can only happen if my hand, while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without, itself tangible, for my other hand, for example, if it takes its place among the things it touches, is in a sense one of them, opens finally upon a tangible being of which it is also a part.”

Modern neuroscience can now attempt empirical studies of Merleau-Ponty’s questions. Through the use of non-invasive neuroimaging and subtle experimental design, the complex relationship between tactile feedback from our bodies and our perception – or, really, sense of ownership – of our periphery is beginning to be better understood. One of the most cogent examples of the potent link between our sense of selfhood and our somatosensory system comes from the autobiography of Ian Waterman, ‘Pride and A Daily Marathon’. In it, Ian describes the devastation caused when a viral infection caused him to lose all feeling below the neck such that he was unable to tell where his body was in space without having sight of it: when his eyes were closed, he literally felt ‘disembodied’, a man without a physical presence. Ian is a powerful example of the body as object: while he can employ visual feedback to estimate the weight of objects before he attempts to grasp and manipulate them, he has been robbed forever of the implicit utilisation of our bodies as manipulative surfaces. His experience of the external world through seeing and hearing, while allowing him to exploit the visual and auditory affordances of objects, closes that most cherished personal and tactile experience forever. Feeling is, indeed, the truth.


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