Tactile Memory

Question: How does the child who is deafblind experience and recall events? How do we share these experiences with them to co-construct a tactile language?

For most of us vision and hearing are our dominant senses. They are the basis for how we take in and process our life’s experiences. As we’ve discussed previously, our formal languages are based on the experiences of seeing and hearing. When we reflect on our distant memories, or process an event from earlier in our day, it’s often a visual and/or auditory moment in time that we carry with us. These moments play in our mind’s eye like the scene from a familiar movie that we have lived previously. 

A festive Thanksgiving table.
A festive Thanksgiving table with candles, flowers, food and wine.

As powerful as these visual/auditory movie scenes can be, it often takes more thought for us to recall the tactile sensations that were associated with them. For example, at Thanksgiving dinner we may recall how pretty the table looked. The turkey, fresh from the oven, the cranberry sauce and candied carrots, along with the sound of our friends and family’s laughter as they gathered round the table. Maybe something significant happened one particular Thanksgiving. Perhaps the family dogs got loose and ate the turkey forcing the family to order pizza for the holiday meal. We remember these moments because they have emotional significance. They help us construct the story that is our lived life. 

These visual/auditory memories can be very powerful. Like movie scenes that we run in our head, they are vividly colorful, musically compelling and emotionally significant.  We remember the colors of the flowers on the table, the sound of laughter, the glow of candles.

As vivid as these memories can be, how much do we rely on our other senses to fill in our movie scenes? Can we recall how our body was positioned? Do we remember what the chair that we were sitting in felt like? Or how at dinner how the dogs felt as they ran between our legs under the table? What was the texture of the pizza in our mouths as compared to Aunt Helen’s famous mashed potatoes?

Tactile memories are often harder for us to recall. We don’t keep records of our tactile memories like we do with our visual and auditory memories. We tend to use things like photograph albums and the written language in journals.  Why don’t we typically use tactile information as a primary tool for recording our life’s history? Is this because our language is not tactually based? Is our language not as advanced in its description of the tactile experience as it is for visual and auditory information? What does this mean for the person whose language is tactile? The person who experiences the world through the information they get from their hands, feet and body? How do we provide the same opportunities to build the vivid movie scene that plays in one’s memory for the person who is deafblind?

Memories are made of… 

There are two main strategies that we use to record, process and recall memories. The first is called rehearsal strategy. Rehearsal strategy involves repeating sounds, words or movements in a systematic way. The other is called autobiographical memory strategy. Autobiographical strategies involve the process of categorizing and conceptualizing our life’s individual experiences into a larger whole that becomes our life’s story.

Rehearsal Memory Strategy

A guitar player practices scales over and over. Through this repetition she starts to remember where her fingers go on the fretboard and how the notes sound in relation to one another. Hopefully, with enough repetition and practice, she can recall these musical forms later when jamming with friends or trying to compose a song. Similarly an actor uses his auditory sense to repeat and “rehearse” his lines as a strategy for learning the parts for a play. 

In the same way, individuals who are deafblind apply their tactile senses using the rehearsal memory strategy to practice something repeatedly in order to record it to memory.

Nick’s Rehearsal Memory

In the video below you see the student Nick and his teacher, Matt, as they practice how to get ready for the day.  Matt is trying to teach Nick the concept of accomplishing this multi-step activity on his own.  Matt uses rehearsal strategy as he models the steps needed to look one’s best each morning. He does this in two ways: first he shows a how-to video on the television, then he models the strategy in person using his own materials. Nick is then encouraged to groom on his own. This is an illustration of the way in which repetition helps Nick commit the steps to memory. Though Nick has quite a bit of usable vision, the tactile experiences in this activity are a significant part of creating this memory.

Autobiographical Memory Strategy

There are three different but overlapping processes involved in the formation of autobiographical memory, in which memories of one’s lived experience are folded into an overarching coherent life story. This story is comprised of life experiences that evoke some significant emotion and become part of the self identity. The three processes involved in autobiographical memory strategy are construction, co-construction, and reconstruction.

Constructing the Story – Making the Movie

What makes up the story of your life? How many autobiographical short scenes are in your mind’s movie library? How do they fill out and complete your life’s long and epic movie? How has your brain categorized and time stamped these short scenes? Do you have tags for the people you were with, the places where an experience took place, what you were doing or how it made you feel? As we bring these experiential fragments together, we develop associations and concepts that build upon each other. This enables recall and development of a sense of self. We mark significant events in a sequential timeline.

This phase of the process is done individually and takes place before the memory is shared with someone else. For example, the child may experience the feel of the sun on his face and take pleasure in that which creates a memory for him.

While the individual who has no vision or hearing does not process information like others and there may not be labels for these experiences, nevertheless they do form memories. All humans start in the place of having sensory experiences without names or labels. Though we continue to have these experiences throughout our lives, once we are able to share these experiences with others they take on deeper meaning.

Co-Construction of the Story – Enter the Supporting Actor 

Our memory of a tactile experience or the tactile element of an overall experience varies with each individual.  Some of us have strong tactile memories of the way the grass felt under our bare feet or the way a certain fabric felt on our skin. While we can talk to others about these tactile experiences, our students who are deafblind may not have the formal language needed to support this conversation. Sharing the tactile experience, and thereby co-constructing a memory, enables us to use gestures and touch to communicate and over time build mutually understood formal language about the shared experience. (To learn more about this, see also Vygotsky’s theories of the Zone of Proximal Development  and Dialogicality .)

In the video, Ingrid and the Crab (Initially), that follows we see an example of Gunnar Vege and his student sharing an experience with a crab. This is an emotional experience for Inge which Gunnar heightens with his intense body movements as he shares in the exploration of the crab.

Because they shared the experience they can recall it with a shared “language of touch”. Let’s watch what happens as they recall the experience later in Ingrid and the Crab (Afterwards).

One of the keys to engaging with the young woman is the tactile emotional tension that Gunnar creates to engage her. He shares his excitement through increasing the size of his movements, and exaggerating their speed and intensity. He does this in the same way we might use different vocal intonations or facial expressions to convey excitement or sadness when we speak. Emotion can also be expressed tactually, through our body, by the tenseness of our muscles, the rhythm and speed of our movement, and the animation of our gestures. 

Reconstructing the Story – Our Lifelong Epic 

In sharing our memories, we are reminiscing and taking these slices of experiences to put them together into a meaningful narrative. We do this within ourselves (self-talk) and also with someone else. 

Often it is through our inner dialogue (what Vygostky calls Dialogicality) that we process new experiences by labeling and categorizing parts of the experience. We can arrange our movie clips along a timeline to help us recall when each event or aspect of the event happened. The ability to place an experience in time and space helps us to develop concepts and to integrate our memories into our lives. Through sharing our experiences with trusted partners, we put names to them, which helps to lay the groundwork for further language and communication. The words we co-construct relate to more than just things, places, people, and actions; they also relate to emotions and our emotional state.