The Haptic Sense, Part 1

Pages: 8
Year: 2017
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 45 – Nº 1

Volume: 45

The author wishes to express special thanks to Hubert Godard for bringing these concepts to the Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) community.

To perceive is to construct a mental representation through the receipt of sensory input; i.e., we are conscious not of the things around us, but only of our subjective representations. For centuries, philosophers and scientists studying perception have affirmed this idea, which is foundational to the modern concept that the social world is a system of interconnected private worlds in which all values are subjective.

While the traditional perceptual categories are five – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – some have postulated a sixth sense, and variously described it as perception of movement, proprioception, or kinesthesia. Though there is not yet a didactic consensus, the sense of touch is now being redefined to encompass the haptic. The term haptic, according to Grunwald (2008), was introduced by German scientist Max Dessoire as early as 1892 to refer to the science of the human touch.

More recently, psychologist James J. Gibson has challenged the idea that the effects of objects on an observer’s nervous system are purely the result of stimuli acting upon a passive mechanical body. To the contrary, according to Gibson, the perceptual system is both active and intentional. Gibson was driven to redefine the perceptual system to include psychological processes such as memory, imagination, symbolic thought, and social interaction.

Gibson’s arguments in support of a new approach to perception give rise to a new psychology as well. He does not ask how the perceiver constructs the world from sensory input and past experience, but rather what information in the environment is directly available to be received. Gibson (1966) suggests that our perceptual systems are attuned to both invariant and variable phenomena, and that we actively seek this information through interaction with the environment. His perceptual systems are:

• orientation (gravity)

• visual

• tasting/smelling

• hearing

• haptic

Haptic, from the Greek haptikós, means proper to touch, or touch-sensitive. The haptic system is a complex of subsystems arising from the simultaneous activity of tactile and proprioceptive receptors. It is the only sense through which we explore the environment actively – and the only one that allows us to perceive the three-dimensional geometry, surface qualities, weight, and texture of objects we manipulate, and to sense the effects of our manipulation as the effects manifest.

The haptic sense is highly developed in the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The skin’s tactile receptors, which register mechanical sensations of pressure, vibration, and touch, allow perception primarily of surface textures. Proprioceptors found in the joints, muscles, tendons, and skin provide information on body parts’ relative positions and movements, as well as the muscular force required either to maintain positions or to make movements. They also help us to discern the forms and qualities of objects. It is the haptic sense of tactility and proprioception taken together that allows us to pluck a raspberry without crushing it (Berthoz 1997).

While the haptic sense has invited exploration by researchers in many fields, structural integrators are indebted to our colleague and teacher Hubert Godard, who opened new paths to our understanding of touch and relationship with our clients through his inspiring and original concept of haptic function. When our hands palpate an object or our feet touch the ground, we use our kinesthetic and tactile senses simultaneously. And, how we relate to an object kinesthetically influences the kind of tactile information our skin receives from it. This multisensory activity permits haptic function – active kinesthetic engagement with the world that is at the same time receptive to tactile information from it. Godard finds a direct connection between touch and palpation of objects by the hands and the ground by the feet, on the one hand, and our gravity response and bodily posture on the other hand.

It follows that attention to the haptic sense improves the quality of our connection with both the ground and our clients. According to Godard, our active touch (kinesthetic) is more effective when at the same time we allow ourselves to be touched (tactile) – as opposed to only grasping with the muscles of the eyes, hands, and feet.

Lucia Merlino, PhD, is a member of the Brazilian Rolfing and Rolf Movement faculties, and has practiced in São Paulo since 1995. Prior to becoming a Rolfer, Lucia was a professional dancer. Her passions for both movement and Rolfing SI led her to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees, for which her focuses of study and research were SI, perception, metaphors, and memory.


Berthoz, A. 1997. Le Sens du mouvement. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Gibson, J. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: HoughtonMifflin.

Grunwald, M. 2008. Human Haptic Perception: Basics and Applications. Berlin: Birkhäuser.[:]The Haptic Sense, Part 1[:pb] The Haptic Sense, Part 1

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In