Touchant-touché: The role of self-touch in the representation of body structure

Consciousness and Cognition 18 (1):2-11 (2009)
The “body image” is a putative mental representation of one’s own body, including structural and geometric details, as well as the more familiar visual and affective aspects. Very little research has investigated how we learn the structure of our own body, with most researchers emphasising the canonical visual representation of the body when we look at ourselves in a mirror. Here, we used non-visual self-touch in healthy participants to investigate the possibility that primary sensorimotor experience may influence cognitive representations of one’s own body structure. Participants used the fingers of one hand , to touch the fingers of the other . A conflict between the experience of the active and passive hand was introduced by experimenter interleaving their fingers with the fingers of the participant’s passive hand. This led to the active hand experiencing that it touched more fingers than the passive hand felt it was being touched by. The effects on representation of body structure were assessed using an implicit measure based on Kinsbourne and Warrington’s ‘in-between task’. We found an underestimation of the number of fingers in the central part of the hand specifically linked to the experience of self-touch. This pattern of results corresponds to the experience of the passive hand, but not the active hand. Nevertheless, comparable reorganisation of fingers within the hand representation was found for both active and passive hands. We show that primary sensorimotor experience can modify the representation of body structure. This modification is driven by the passive experience of being touched, rather than by the active experience of touching. We believe this is the first experimental study of effects of self-touch on the mental representation of the body
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DOI 10.1016/j.concog.2008.08.003
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Shaun Gallagher (2000). Philosophical Conceptions of the Self. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4 (1):14-21.

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