There are many types of touch. A cold splash of water, the tug of a strong breeze or the heat and heft of your coffee mug will each play on your skin in a different way.
Within your skin is an array of touch sensors, each associated with nerve fibers that connect to the central nervous system. These sensors comprise specialized nerve endings and skin cells. Along with the fibers, they translate our physical interactions with the world into electrical signals that our brain can process. They help to bridge the gap between the physical act of touching and the cognitive awareness of tactile sensation.
Even a simple stroke across the forearm engages several distinct nerve fibers. Three types—A-beta, A-delta and C fibers—have subtypes that are specialized for sensing particular types of touch; other subtypes carry information related to pain. The integration of information from these fibers is what allows us to gain such rich sensory experiences through our skin, but it has also made it more challenging for researchers to understand the fibers’ individual roles. Although these fibers do not act in isolation, the examples that follow highlight the primary nerve fibers engaged by different types of touch.