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Image of a young infant holding an older person’s hand and experiencing haptic memory.

When we explore objects through touch, our brains create lasting memories directly related to those objects. The process, called haptic memory, happens automatically without any intentional effort as a way to help us recognize pressure, pain or something that feels nice. It’s how we already know a surface might be hot before we reach out to touch it, and how we know it’s raining before we even see the raindrops falling from the sky. [The second example about raining doesn’t make sense to me]

Little is known about long-term memory for information sensed through modalities other than vision. But research suggests that haptic perception, or “touch memory,” is a powerful tool that helps us engage with the world around us in exciting ways.

One study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that we can visualize objects and recall their specific details — including their texture, shape and weight — through haptic exploration without ever having actually seen the objects.

In one haptic memory study, participants were blindfolded and asked to explore almost 200 different everyday objects with their hands for 10 seconds. Immediately after the exploration period, the participants, still blindfolded, completed a haptic memory test for half of the objects. The test was simple: They compared one object they held earlier (perhaps a pen) to a similar object that was only distinguishable by minor differences, and were asked to identify which object they had explored in the previous exercise. They completed the same test with the other half of the objects one week later.

The results were surprising. Participants showed almost perfect recall — with 94 percent accuracy — on the test that followed the exploration period. One week later, their memory was slightly fuzzier but still strong, enabling 84 percent accuracy in identifying the correct objects.

These results support the theory that when we touch an object we’ve yet to see, our brain forms a mental image of its probable appearance. This may be especially likely when that object resembles a familiar item we’ve come into contact with before. When we finally see that object for the first time, we can recognize it.

There’s still a lot of research to be done, but these preliminary results indicate that our haptic memory is just as critical as iconic or echoic memory. [What is “iconic and echoic memory”? This is the first mention of either term in this article.]

But how does it work?

It all starts with information or external stimuli — such as the smooth surface of a coffee table or the fluffy coat of the neighbor’s cat. This is picked up by sensory receptors in our fingers and sent through the spinal cord to the brain region that processes the sense of touch. As a result of this process, simple touch leaves a memory trace that lingers long after the physical sensation is gone.

Sensory Stimulation and Haptic Memory at The Moments

At The Moments, we fully understand the power of touch, and we use this sense as a guide when it comes to the overall design and functionality of our facility — right down to the bedding and linens we select for use in residents’ private suites. It’s all in an effort to help our residents feel more connected to the world and people around them. And, because exploring objects through touch (like blocks, puzzles, tools and foods) builds lasting, durable memories that help people feel grounded and connected, we actively incorporate touch therapy into the daily routines of all our residents.

Want to learn more about how we use haptic memory to help those with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Keep reading here.

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