Humans’ earliest and most salient experiences are those of touch, and these are of great importance to social development and the development of a bodily self. In order to understand the social world, it is necessary to have an awareness of a bodily self; that is, the boundaries of one’s body and the percepts produced by one’s self. Through detection of one’s own bodily space, humans are then able to differentiate sensory interactions with others as unique and socially relevant, and the brain attenuates to these relevant experiences (suppressing input from self-generated sensations). Studying the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, and their maturation, is important for our understanding of social cognition and the disorders in which it is disturbed.
The overall aim of my thesis is to study how social touch processing relates to the bodily self with a particular focus on populations with known atypical social cognition and disturbances in the “self” domain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and somatosensory evoked potentials (SEP), we explore behavioral and neural markers of social touch processing in three clinical populations (autism spectrum condition, ADHD, anorexia nervosa) as well as in mother-infant-interactions.