What Are Touch Receptors?
Touch receptors are neurons – basic units of the nervous system that send electric signals to other neurons and to the brain,1 like a long chain of text messages containing crucial information about our activities. These specific receptors are found in the skin, and allow us to fully experience the world through touch. They inform us about our surroundings and protect our bodies from harm by letting us know what’s going on around us at the physical level.
How Do Touch Receptors Work?
You have many different kinds of touch receptors working just beneath the surface of the skin at all times. Every one, however, features a specialized ending that is designed to detect and respond to different types of physical stimulation.2
You need various types of receptors, for example, to tell the difference between being touched on the arm and having your arm exposed to cold winds.
When your touch receptors are activated by physical interaction, they generate something called “action potential,” an electrical signal that travels from that receptor to your brain.3
The first stop in the signal’s journey is the brainstem, which connects the spinal cord to the thalamus (among many other functions). The thalamus is responsible for receiving and sharing most sensory information with the rest of the brain.4 It’s like a Central Station for sensory data! Next, those signals travel to the somatosensory cortex, which is the part of the brain that interprets them and lets you know what it is you’re feeling.5
Let’s say you’re out for a walk, barefoot, and you accidentally step on a rock. A few different touch receptors in your foot will activate and send information up to your somatosensory cortex about what happened. Your mechanoreceptors will send signals to the cortex, which then interprets the information: “the thing that touched the bottom of the right foot is solid, rough, and sharp.” Meanwhile, nociceptors will send a different signal that the cortex will read as “because the object was sharp, there might be some damage to the bottom of the right foot.”6 That “potential damage” signal is then sent to the relevant area of the brain – called the periaqueductal gray – which will assess and heal the damage, beginning with sending signals back that cause you to feel pain where the rock struck.
And remember, all of this is happening incredibly fast – there is no delay between when your foot hits the rock and the pain begins! You instantly knew that you’d stepped on a rock and that it hurt.
Touch is an endlessly complicated sense, and that’s what makes it so cool to study! For years, eSmartr has been exploring the way touch receptors and other neurons in the skin communicate with the brainstem. Our Cognitive Boost Technology™ demonstrates that it is possible to stimulate specific patterns and types of receptors in such a way as to induce positive reactions from the brain, including increased focus and reduced stress. You can read more about these benefits and the science behind them here! Remember: whether you’re petting a puppy, getting a hug from a friend, or testing the water to see if it’s too hot, your touch receptors are hard at work helping you to experience the world in the best way possible.