Does the language we use to segment the body, shape the way we perceive it? A study of tactile perceptual distortions

Frances Le Cornu Knight*, Andrew J. Bremner, Dorothy Cowie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Tactile perception is referenced to, and modulated by, body parts and their boundaries. For example, tactile distances presented over the wrist are perceptually elongated relative to those presented within the hand or arm. This phenomenon is argued to result from a segmentation of tactile space according to body parts and their boundaries, i.e., touches presented within a body part are perceived as being more similar, and therefore closer together, whereas those that straddle a body part boundary (e.g. presented across two body parts) are perceived as more distinct and thus further apart. We tested the hypothesis that language shapes this effect by providing consolidatory labels for categories and boundaries, as it does in other perceptual domains. We examined the perceptual elongation of distance over the wrist in a group of Croatian adults (n = 37) whose first language does not differentiate between hand and arm at the wrist in common noun terms (instead, the Croatian word “ruka” encompasses the entire limb). Croatian adults, like UK adults reported in a previous study (Le Cornu Knight, Longo, & Bremner, 2014), perceived distances presented proximodistally over the wrist boundary as longer than those presented mediolaterally, whereas the reverse was found for both the hand and the arm. This pattern of results was remained when Croatian participants were split into two groups of inexperienced or proficient English-language speakers. This is striking evidence that body part boundaries consistently modulate tactile perception, despite differences in the linguistic distinctions of such body parts made by one's first language.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104127
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Body parts
  • Body representations
  • Body structural description
  • Language
  • Tactile perception
  • Touch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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