What happens when someone encounters an object?

What happens when someone encounters an object? I find it helpful to break that question down further – who is encountering the object and how are they encountering it?

Who is encountering an object?

The moment most people first encounter objects is as a baby. The way babies encounter the world is strongly determined by developmental stages. Everyone, young or old, encounter the world in a multi-sensory fashion (more on this later) but the balance of those senses changes. As a young baby sight is not the dominant sense, encounters are driven much more by feel (or smell for very young babies) and feel is mediated by hands and tongue. Sound and sight are linked senses; some studies have shown that babies look towards the location of a sound to identify the source.

The impulse to hold is part attempting mastery of motor control itself and part exploration. The studies in ‘Touch in Museums’ (Chatterjee, 2009) discuss how we have different types of nerves in our hands and our feet than, for instance, on our arms. The nerves in our hands are insulated, ensuring more rapid transmission of the nerve signal to the brain and the signals go to parts of the brain involving analytical processing. Whereas the nerves on the hairy parts of our skin are un-insulated and respond to slower inputs and the signals are transmitted to parts of the brain involved in emotion (McGlone, 2009). The argument is that the hands and skin are involved in our exploration of the environment and we are adapted to processing information from them to assess that environment. Meanwhile the other nerves are more involved in touching as social interaction. Nonetheless, although the signals from the hands may well evoke analysis, the task that they are engaged in has emotional consequences: witness the triumphant smile of a small child when it masters an operation. Furthermore the moment of touch occurs within a broader context which itself has emotional meaning.

So, simply holding something, involves both analytical and emotional content. This mastery of touch is something that is deliberate and conscious but as the child develops the skills involved in holding become routine and the memory of how to do that moves from one part of the brain to another, the cerebellum, which is associated with automatic operations (Gellatly, 2007).

It’s worth digressing at this point to mention that the model of the brain that is currently being presented by behavioural economists is that of the brain as a community of centres, each with a different purpose or focus (for example the bit that focuses on assessing a situation for immediate rewards against the bit that deals with more longer term considerations of gain or disadvantage). This different centres work co-operatively or competitively at a level of neural activity that is below conscious awareness; it is only when that activity exceeds a certain threshold that we become aware of it (Ariely, 2008, Gilbert, 2006). Evans (2001, p.26) also points out how emotions can work through multiple pathways in the brain, ideally the different pathways work successfully as responses to different situations adaptations. This is relevant as touch is, or can be, an emotional experience (Critchley, 2009)

So, automatic operations are dealt with by the cerebellum and their execution is below the threshold for conscious awareness. This is increasingly true as we become older so we have more ‘space’ to think about an object in itself rather than the process of holding.

But to go back slightly, the way we encounter an object changes as we age. The dominance of certain senses changes as we age. This might not necessarily be innate. The abstract for the book ‘Sensible Objects’ (Edwards et al., 2006) makes the argument that the dominance of vision is a Western cultural construct and other cultures prioritise other senses. Certainly, having worked with children and having used and heard the phrase “Look with your eyes and not your fingers” many times, it is clear that young children have still not accepted the hegemony of vision that museums, galleries and schools impose. Adults too like to touch, the cultural training is not completely successful. So, however impoverished those other senses are, we do encounter objects using a range of senses.

Furthermore our awareness of the encounter may only be limited. This may depend on the object in question, but neurological studies discussed in behavioural economics show that we are not necessarily consciously aware of all that is taking place in our field of experience. What we perceive to be in front of, or around, us is actually a selection of all there is that is presented to the conscious part of the brain by the other subconscious parts of the brain (See Bragg et al., 2008)

So, our multisensory experience may only be partial or fragmentary. Hence it may be open to expansion or revision.

But, once we have that object in our hands, what is happening? Let’s assume for a moment that it is an object we have not encountered before. How do we deal with it? Eco works through a series of stages of analysis in his book Kant and the Platypus (2000). He approaches the brain not on a neurological level but as a black box (i.e. he looks at the inputs and the outputs and makes judgements about the operations taking place inside the box without worrying too much about the precise mechanics). He argues that we must develop and hold ideas of objects in our heads that are intrinsically multi-sensory. His question – what did the Aztecs think when they first saw horses? – is instructive. He posits that the idea (cognitive type) of a horse would involve not only size, shape and colour but also smell and possible the feeling of nervousness when impressed by its size. Eco goes on to discuss how we build up associative frameworks built on ideas of similarity to develop classes of objects. This is seemingly innate but the work of Vygotsky (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994) showed that although young children do this, their associations are more fluid / changeable than adults and they are less likely to associate in quite the same way. He argues that children do not start using fixed frames of association that are similar to adult frameworks until they are in their teenage years.

Personal, anecdotal experience suggests that even adults do not associate in the same way. During a training session the group I was in was asked to associate on two words (time and apple), the majority of the group thought of factual associations (apples are green and crunchy), the minority thought of looser associations (Adam’s apple, Newton and gravity). The majority of the group were employees of Corus and they tended to employ similar types, so the results were not surprising.

Once I was in a meeting with 2 colleagues, one from Wales and one from Greece, where we sat and looked my Welsh colleague’s blackbird for baking, was interesting because it highlighted the cultural nature of association-making. Some of us knew that it was linked to a practice in baking, others then recalled the nursery rhyme. My Greek colleague had none of these associations to draw on and there is (seemingly) no immediate Greek equivalent to this. She then, if we would have let her, would have been forced into a more conscious interrogation of it’s form, material etc.. If nothing else this shows that there is a fuzzy boundary between the personal encounters with objects and wider material cultures.

Personal, anecdotal experience suggests that children also associate in different ways. Many of the object handling sessions that I led were focussed around developing children’s language. They were given objects and asked for describing words. Some children found analogies with other personal experience, such as the boy who described a ball made of woven stainless steel wires as being “like worms”. In many cases children sought to apply known and ‘almost right’ words to describe objects – the word ‘soft’ was frequently employed when children seemed to be looking for ‘smooth’. (Some material I have encountered recently seems to suggests that this link between concepts and language is in a crucial stage of development during childhood, more on this in later entries.)

So, when encountered, objects are ‘processed’ in a multi-sensory way into a framework that is culturally formed in adults (if not children) but which is neither exhaustive nor deterministic.

Q – is a multi-sensory cognitive type stored as a set of linked fragments in different parts of the brain that deal with different sorts of information?

Q – how are associations formed on a neurological level?

Eco (2000) is focussed on language and cognition and this explains his approach but there are other ways in which objects are processed. In ‘The Architecture of Happiness’, de Botton (2006) talks about the way that people respond to objects and buildings. He highlights the etymology of the word handsome, that it relates to the way people judged an object, i.e. it fitted well in the hand. He also suggests that people like buildings and objects because they associate them with identities that they aspire to. This seems highly speculative and I don’t know what his grounds are for this. But it does serve to link back to the community model of the brain mentioned earlier. The brain can be dealing with objects in a variety of ways simultaneously without us being aware of it.

Of course, apart from in museums and galleries, we generally don’t encounter objects in isolation, instead we encounter them through use. Another essay in ‘Touch in Museums’ reminds us of this. Our memory of the object can be inextricable from our memory of the process that it was part of and that memory is not simply a memory of sensations, associations and feelings but also a memory of movements and operations.

The quote from Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’ (2009) that I included in my previous entry is essential reading in this regard. This idea of a ‘neurological geography’ that is involved in the mastery of the use of an object is a very helpful one. Sennett is using it to highlight the neural basis for the development of craft skills. Different craft activities will have different geographies and that geography will change as skills are mastered, as Sennett comments elsewhere in the book.

My Welsh colleague gave an example of her grandfather (?) who habitually flung the dregs of his cup of tea over the floor because he used to drink his tea on his bench in his garden and used the dregs to water the plants, shows that these hard-wired motor memories apply to more than just craft skills. Miller’s study in ‘The Comfort of Things’ (2008) further illustrates that objects can be deployed equally as skilfully but as more social tools. The use (or deployment) of the object remains crucial.

The question could be then – What other geographies are invoked in other, less musical but nonetheless learnt, activities?

In ‘Looking for Spinoza’, Damasio (2003) synthesises much of his research on feelings and emotions. Feelings, he argues, are a set of neurological and physiological responses to a given stimuli, emotions are the image of these feelings in the internal mental map of the body. (This links in with Sennett’s comment on the emotional experience of success.) Some of these are innate, adaptive responses whilst others are learnt. Damasio talks about circuits of responses being created by repeated exposure over time. Eventually, we get to the stage where a single object / person / image which we associate with the original cause of the feelings can stimulate those feelings in the absence of that primal cause. He labels these as ‘emotionally competent stimuli’.

Falk highlights the idea that memories can have emotional tags that are related to the moment when the event was first experienced (1996). This is particularly relevant if we want to put the moment of object handling in a personal/emotional context such as a visit to a museum or art gallery.

So, we can posit the idea of the used object as a competent stimulus not only to invoke the memory of a set of practices but also for the emotions that were associated with them.

This description helps me to outline a physio- and neuro-logical account of what happens when we hold something. Where it lacks detail is in the specifics of the neural geography, how elements of a multi-sensory memory are created and maintained and how associations between memories are formed.

The earlier question of how associations work on a neurological level is crucial, for two reasons.
When a memory is evoked it leads on to other memories. Some of the behavioural economics work has highlighted that our memories of an event are not complete, we don’t store the whole thing, rather we store salient points and then our brain fills in the gaps with probable detail. So the skeleton of a memory is evoked by an object, the brain fills provides probable details. From all that has preceded it seems most likely that the skeletal memory must be at some level multi-sensory and elements of it distributed across the brain. But one memory provokes other memories and so on releasing long forgotten stories. How does this work?

The image I have in my head is that memory is like a network of neural connections – connections can grow with repeated use and diminish if neglected. The structure of the brain is re-written on a large scale at certain points in childhood development, teenage-hood is one and (I believe) there is another around 7. (This idea of wholesale restructuring may explain why childhood memories are lost to us; I’d have to check this.) But, outside these major events, the network develops and changes in a more continual and organic fashion in the absence of any trauma. Is this image anywhere near correct? If so, do the connections diminish over time at the same rate or are the connections between certain types of elements of the memory more resilient to the predations of time?


Ariely, D. (2008) Predictably Irrational, London: HarperCollins

de Botton, A. (2006) The Architecture of Happiness, London: Hamish Hamilton

Bragg, M. et al. (2008) In Our Time: Neuroscience, Broadcast on 13 Nov 2008, 21:30 on BBC Radio 4, [Last accessed 30/08/10]

Chatterjee, H.J. (ed.) (2009) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, New York; Oxford: Berg

Critchley, H. (2009) ‘Emotional Touch: A Neuroscientific Overview’ in Chatterjee, H.J. (ed.) (2009) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, New York; Oxford: Berg, 41-60

Damasio, A. (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, New York: Mariner Books

Eco, U. (2000) Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, New York: Mariner Books

Edwards, E., Gosden, C. & Phillips, R. B. (eds) (2006) Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, New York; Oxford: Berg

Evans, D. (2001) Emotion: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Falk, J.H. (1996) ‘Recent advances in the neurosciences: Implications for visitor studies’, Visitor Studies

Gellatly, A & Zarate, O. (2007) Introducing Mind & Brain, Cambridge, UK: Icon Books

Gilbert, D. (2006) Stumbling on Happiness, London: Harper Perennial

McGlone, F. (2009) ‘The Two Sides of Touch: Sensing and Feeling’ in Chatterjee, H.J. (ed.) (2009) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, New York; Oxford: Berg, 41-60

Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

Sennett, R. (2009) The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books

van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (1994) The Vygotsky Reader, Oxford: Blackwell


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, Objects, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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