Haptic Perception: As I Touch the Clay, the Clay Touches Me

Haptic from the Greek " haptikόs: suitable for touch"

Haptic from the Greek " haptikόs: suitable for touch"

Haptic perception is the perception through touch. Our hands are superbly fine-tuned perceptual instruments. They play a far more important role for art therapy than has been acknowledged so far. Touch is the most fundamental of human experiences. Infants rely on touch to feel safe and loved; to be rocked, held and soothed calms them and regulates their nervous system. We comfort each other through a hug, friends are ‘in touch’ with each other, we relax with a massage, our body-rhythms synchronize through touch (Orbach 2006). Love, sexuality as well as violence are primarily communicated through touch. Our skin boundary becomes invaded through inappropriate touching, through accidents and medical procedures and the vast majority of traumatic memories involve touch. When we deal with trauma, we almost always deal with events that were experienced through unwanted touching.

Haptic Perception: Finger Paints in Guided Drawing.

Haptic Perception: Finger Paints in Guided Drawing.


Neurologist Wilson (Wilson 1998) researched the evolution of the prefrontal cortex over the past three million years in correlation to the skilled hand-movements of our prehistoric ancestors. Primitive tool-use precedes language. When we descended from trees as apes and began hunting, the discovery of being able to throw a rock to kill a kangaroo would have been primarily communicated through hand-movements and mimicry to other members of the tribe. For this process to happen, our ancestors would have had to become aware first, that they could throw a stone in order to get food. Only then could they communicate this discovery also to others. It is this process that prompted the prefrontal cortex to grow. The new learning had to be stored somewhere. According to Wilson, the reason we have two brain hemispheres with quite different functions is based on the fact that these hemispheres grew in correlation to our hand-movements. The left hand is more concerned with the present, for example on which surface to balance a coconut, in order to then apply a skilled right-hand movement, learnt in the past, for getting the juice from the coconut in the future.

We all retrace these evolutionary steps in our early childhood. 80% of our prefrontal cortex is dependent on coming on-line through oral stimulation and hand-movements. The proximal senses of touch and taste are instrumental in cortical development. Language skills for example are acquired through haptic perception, not through listening; the sense of hearing only assures that children of English-speaking parents do not respond in Japanese (Wilson 1998). Sign language for the deaf, for example, uses exactly the same brain region as spoken language. The link between haptic perception and language is an extraordinary discovery underpinned by research at the University of Chicago. (Rowe 2008) Children learn language through lining up building blocks, piling things on top of each other, pouring water and catching objects, through touching and turning them - and through observing their caregivers’ hands.

We live in an image-dominated society. However, the creation and processing of imagery happens developmentally much later. Only from approximately four years onwards will children be able to tell stories, draw images and be able to process a sequential storyline. When we deal with developmental trauma, we deal with touch trauma, and we need touch-modalities to treat it. Sensory contact with clay, finger-paints and textures of collage materials creates a feedback loop between motor impulses and sensory awareness that is non-verbal and not image based, but appeals to the sensorimotor needs of our earliest psychological development.


Acupressure, acupuncture and reflexology have linked certain parts of the hands to specific organs and regions of the body. The base of the hand relates to the pelvis and abdomen. You can try this out by yourself and apply pressure on a table with the base of your hands only. You will notice how the muscles in your pelvis and abdomen contract instantly. 

In the context of Haptic perception, the centre of the hand is associated with full body contact and sensory awareness. Reflexology also relates the lungs and heart to the middle of the hands.

Full touch gives us intense information about a person or an object. Again, you can test this by putting your hand flat on a surface. If this surface disgusts you, you will try to make as little direct contact with it as possible. You can notice how your hands want to retreat and for example only touch it with the fingertips or use a tool or surgical gloves to distance themselves from direct contact. If we touch a baby on the other hand or someone we really like, touching with the full hand gives us a pleasurable body sensation "all over". Clients who have been traumatised by touch through physical or sexual abuse, through accidents and surgeries will often find it challenging to touch finger-paints or clay. The direct contact can easily trigger traumatic memories. It is important that art therapists are aware of the effect certain art materials can have on clients. However, “if the sensory and motor basis remains fragmented due to biography or social circumstances, hand actions remain unstable and fragile. The lack of a haptic and bodily basis will then be substituted through the activation of fantasies and imaginations, which lack the vital intensity of the physical, in order to gain stability.” (Brockmann/Geiss 2011, p. 71, Elbrecht 2012, p. 43) This is the plight of most children who are diagnosed as being “on the spectrum”.

Reflexology Diagram

Reflexology Diagram


Body-awareness is determined by exteroceptors: touch, taste, smell, sound, sight; and interoceptors: connective tissue, muscles and viscera, also the internal sense including balance and proprioception. (Rothschild 2000, p. 40f). Body memories are stored in the interoceptorsExteroceptors focus on the environment outside of the body. The proximal senses of touch and taste are designed to assess events close by, while smell, sound and sight deal with events further away. Both exteroceptors and interoceptors find their particular expression in the hands and significantly contribute to what is called haptic perception. Unlike any other body part our hands are extraordinary complex sense organs. On our fingertips every square inch of skin has about 16.000 touch sensors that communicate with our brain (Murphy 2010, p. 40). 

From the haptic perspective the hands mirror the entire human organism:

·      The base of the hand relates to the pelvis and abdomen and is used to execute motor impulses such as pressure and pushing.

·      The center of the hand has the feeling function; it is in touch with the heart and lungs. In order to really connect with an object the hand needs to be flat.

·      The fingers reflect the head, its cognitive and subtle perceptual functions. Fingers can ‘see’. In this context the thumb is not a finger, but executes impulses arising from the instinctual base of the hand. 

Clay-work enables individuals to encounter the constructive and destructive aspects of the self as processes of psychic change and identity formation (Sholt/Gavron 2006). Observing hands in the Clay Field, or when they move rhythmically with finger paints, or how they hold crayons and touch objects allows diagnostic conclusions about clients’ embodiment or patterns of dissociation. Haptic object relations refers to the way we engage with the ‘world’, how we discovered as infants and children the environment around us. At every stage core needs demand satiation. If we can find suitable art materials that appeal to clients, and support them in their discoveries in a safe environment, they are often able to repair implicit traumatic memories that have no story to tell, but that have been formative for their sense of identity. Such discoveries are rhythmic, repetitive and non verbal. If they “feel” good, they are good. If they “feel” bad, they are bad. By increasing the goodness and creating a sense of sensorimotor fulfilment through touch, we can stimulate neurophysiological repair that is lasting and deeply transformative.

*Brockman, A. D., & Geiss, M.L. (2011). Sprechende hände: Haptik und haptischer sinn als entwicklungspotential [Speaking hands; Haptic and haptic sense as developmental potential].Berlin: Pro Business.

* Elbrecht, C. (2012). Trauma healing at the clay field: A sensorimotor approach to art therapy.London: Jessica Kingsley.

* Murphy, P. (2010). The hand book. Palo Alto, CA: Klutz

* Orbach, S. (2009). Bodies.London: Profile Books.

* Sholt, M., & Gavron, T. (2006). Therapeutic qualities of clay-work in art therapy and psychotherapy: A review. Journal of American Art Therapy Association, 23(6), 66-72.

* Rowe, M. (2008). Child-directed speech: Relation to socioeconomic status, knowledge of child development, and child vocabulary skill. Journal of Child Language, 35, 185-205.

* Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Wilson, F. (1998). The hand. New York: Vintage