The human hand can detect both form and texture information of a contact surface. The detection of skin displacement (sustained stimulus) and changes in skin displacement (transient stimulus) are thought to be mediated in different tactile channels; however, tactile form perception may use both types of information. Here, we studied whether both the temporal frequency and the temporal coherency information of tactile stimuli encoded in sensory neurons could be used to recognize the form of contact surfaces. We used the fishbone tactile illusion (FTI), a known tactile phenomenon, as a probe for tactile form perception in humans. This illusion typically occurs with a surface geometry that has a smooth bar and coarse textures in its adjacent areas. When stroking the central bar back and forth with a fingertip, a human observer perceives a hollow surface geometry even though the bar is physically flat. We used a passive high-density pin matrix to extract only the vertical information of the contact surface, suppressing tangential displacement from surface rubbing. Participants in the psychological experiment reported indented surface geometry by tracing over the FTI textures with pin matrices of the different spatial densities (1.0 and 2.0 mm pin intervals). Human participants reported that the relative magnitude of perceived surface indentation steeply decreased when pins in the adjacent areas vibrated in synchrony. To address possible mechanisms for tactile form perception in the FTI, we developed a computational model of sensory neurons to estimate temporal patterns of action potentials from tactile receptive fields. Our computational data suggest that (1) the temporal asynchrony of sensory neuron responses is correlated with the relative magnitude of perceived surface indentation and (2) the spatiotemporal change of displacements in tactile stimuli are correlated with the asynchrony of simulated sensory neuron responses for the fishbone surface patterns. Based on these results, we propose that both the frequency and the asynchrony of temporal activity in sensory neurons could produce tactile form perception.
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