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When someone thinks of fingerprints, normally, the first thing that pops up in their mind has something to do with identifying a person within a crime related situation. In today’s age the science of fingerprints has been made popular mainly through television, like CSI and other crime related shows, but in reality, their use in identification and the criminal justice system has been around for many years. Fingerprints in themselves consist of extremely intricate patterns and designs but understanding what a fingerprint is to the basic degree is simple, which is why they attract a lot of attention in media usage. However, the average person might not know that fingerprints actually have multiple purposes, for example, the receptors that make up our fingerprints are used every day to gather information while we are interacting with and perceiving the world around us. There have been numerous studies done that have focused on and discussed the role of fingerprints in perception and action, but before we can understand and review those, we must take a step back and understand the basic foundations of what a fingerprint is and the different types of relationships/interactions between perception and action.
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To start off, a fingerprint is made up of ridges of skin that form furrows in between each ridge. These ridges and furrows create complicated and unique patterns that are different for every person, even if you have an identical twin. There are three main distinct types of patterns that are used to classify the different combinations of the ridges on one’s fingertips including; loops, whorls, and arches. The fingerprint pattern that is left on paper when pressure is added is due to the fact that the ridges have pores along their entire length that exude perspiration which is why when any article, like ink, is picked up by the ridges, the article will leave an exact impression of the ridges when pressed down (Ramotowski, 2001, p. 2). Fingerprints are used on an everyday basis as an identification method and because no one has ever been found with patterns or sequences that are identical to another person, they can play an extremely important role in the field of forensics. Fingerprints are gathered and studied by analysts who analyze and locate the minutiae, or the ridge characteristics, to identify the specific points in the patterns. They then can use that information to match or narrow down a possible field of suspects within a crime which further allocates for them to be a primary piece of evidence in the court of law.
In addition, to knowing what fingerprints are in order to understand their role in perception and action we need to understand the basic relationships between perception and action. For this concept, we are talking about perception in relation to the sense of touch. According to the textbook Sensation and Perception (5th Edition) written by Jeremy M. Wolfe and colleagues, touch is the sensations caused by stimulation of the skin, muscles, tendons and joints. Focusing on the skin, the term tactile refers to the result of mechanical interactions with the skin. Skin is made up of multiple layers including the dermis, the inner layers, and the epidermis, the outer layers, which includes tactile receptors called mechanoreceptors, a sensory receptor that responds to mechanical stimulation (pressure, vibration, or movement) (Wolfe et al. 2017). Information is gathered by touch through a process known as Haptic Perception, which in simple terms refers to the perceptual processing of inputs from multiple sensory subsystems. Since touch relies on action to gather information, as people we are actively using our sense of touch constantly to understand the world around us. There are two ways, that complement each other, in which we categorize the activity of touch; action for perception and perception for action. Action-for-perception can be described as us using our hands to actively explore the world of surfaces and objects outside our bodies while perception-for-action can be described as us using sensory input to prepare us to interact with objects and surfaces around us (Wolfe et al. 2017). These two sides of haptic perception work together to allow us to gather information through action, our sense of touch, and perception. Action-for-perception focuses on the use of exploratory procedures, hand movement patterns used to perceive an object’s physical properties, while perception-for-action uses our tactile receptors, like the mechanoreceptors, to provide crucial information when interacting with objects.
In continuance, take the information about fingerprints and their unique characteristics and combine that with the knowledge of the relationships between action and perception and what you get is the basic understanding of how fingerprints play an active role in how we perceive and interact with objects every day. The ridges and furrows of the fingerprints are made up of different tactile receptors and pores that contribute to valuable functions in our lives, like determining textures and grasping objects, as we come in contact with them. In some of the most recent studies, scientists have started to question and propose that fingerprints have two important roles, one being that they enhance the perception of fine surface textures and the other is that they help our fingers maintain a stable grasp on objects by increasing the amount of friction between our ridged skin and an object.
The first way that scientists have proposed the functionality of fingertips in our daily lives is through the idea that they enhance our perception of fine surface textures. To start, the terms fine surface textures and coarse surface textures refer to the roughness/smoothness of the texture of the object being touched. The perception of the degree of roughness of a surface is based off of the cutaneous vibrations that are elicited when our fingertips are scanned across the surface. These vibrations are then encoded by the Pacinian fibers, also known as the Pacinian corpuscles, one of the four types of mechanoreceptors or tactile receptors that are located in our fingertips. Tactile receptors are categorized by their ability to adapt and the size of their receptive fields and Pacinian corpuscles or FA II receptors are known as the fast-adapting receptors with large receptive fields. According to an article published in 2009 by Scheibert and his colleagues, they conducted research and found that since human fingerprints are organized in elliptical twirls and broken into different regions on the fingertips, each Pacinian corpuscle can be ascribed with an optimal scanning orientation when it comes to processing certain textures. Meaning that fingerprints allow for a special conditioning of the texture-induced mechanical signals that facilitate the processing of the specific mechanoreceptors, depending on the orientation of the ridges, with respect to the scanning direction (Scheibert et al. 2009). Using the information about optimal scanning locations this research concluded that when finger-pad like ridges are used to actively explore very fine surface textures, these Pacinian corpuscle regions selectively amplify frequencies ranging from about 200 to 300hz, while filtering out other frequencies. This frequency was found to be the most optimal for the Pacinian fibers when it came to mediate the coding of the fine textures. However, there is some debate about this research because this effect was not found when observing coarse surface textures in this specific study. It is thought that since the high-frequency selection and amplification implemented by the finger pad ridges dovetails with the maximum sensitivity of the FA II mechanoreceptors, the large receptive and fast-adapting Pacinian fibers, it is implicated that the finger-pads are tuning the signals from the exploration of finely textured surfaces to the relevant neural processing (Wolfe et al. 2014). Basically, saying that the finger ridges might not be necessarily enhancing the perception of fine texture surfaces but are better able at filtering out the frequencies that do not correspond with those not of fine texture surfaces. Further research among this concept is needed and finding a way to determine information about both fine and coarse textures is important to understand how the tactile receptors in our fingertips play a role in perception and action. An example of a further research study that could be is one that reflects more on exploratory procedures, such as fingertip trajectory and contacting zone, and how they are used by humans during texture evaluation tasks.
The second way that scientists have proposed the functionality of fingerprints in our daily lives is through which they help our fingers maintain a stable grasp on objects by increasing the amount of friction between our ridged skin and the object. However, this concept of increasing the friction has been challenged by many studies, where most now believe it is unlikely that the finger pad is what increases the friction. In a study conducted by Peter Warman and Roland Ennos, in 2009, they challenged the validity of the function that friction increases, by experimentally showing that ridged fingertip skin produces less, not more friction, during contact by reducing the amount of skin contact area (Wolfe et al. 2014). In the study it was found that the results of the tests showed conclusively that the friction coefficient fell significantly at higher normal forces and that friction was higher when there was a greater contact area, meaning when the fingers were held flatter against the object or against a wider object, so the ridges were less prominent (Warman & Ennos, 2009). This study had their limitations, like any other study, and Warman and Ennos were clear in the discussion part of their article about how there is need for improvement in the ways that you can increase the accuracy when measuring contact area and until that is possible there is really no proper way to measure the ridges impact on friction.
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The article goes on to discuss plenty of alterative options for why we even have fingerprints and what their purpose is when it comes to perception and action, including one possibility that I think is extremely interesting and could lead to many additional studies. This idea is the theory of the “water bed” design, basically saying that the finger pads themselves are subcutaneous cushions of fat and are soft and act rather like water beds, in order to help maximize contact even at low applied forces (Warman & Ennos, 2009). This is basically saying that the fingerprints might add an advantage because they allow for the skin to stretch more to the right angles when applying pressure making it easier to grasp certain objects. Another route for future research consists of testing if moisture could play a factor in helping to stabilize grasping by increasing the friction between the gripped object and the finger. It has been found in some limited research that sweat could facilitate stable manipulation of objects by increasing friction (Wolfe et al. 2014) but not enough research has been done in measuring the different slip thresholds for different levels of grip force and skin moisture context.
As we discussed, fingerprints play a significant role in both perception and action, whether it be action-for-perception or perception-for-action, our unique fingerprints serve more of a purpose for us than just for identification processes. Fingerprints are made up of tactile receptors that to an extent are responsible for us being able to tell the different between smooth and rough surfaces, the degree of responsibility is still being researched but we know that these tactile receptors are what gives us the opportunity. The mechanoreceptors in our fingertips, whether large or small or fast-adapting or slow-adapting work together to inform us about every object that we touch or come in contact with. Whether it’s rubbing your hand on a piece of wood or determining if a piece of clothing is soft or not, the ridges on our fingerprints are playing a role in perceiving, information is gathered through exploratory procedures and used to determine the specific characteristics of the object. There are no studies or research out there that tells us the exact role that fingerprints play in perception and action because they are so complex and unique to every individual but what is important is that people are starting to understand that they do play some sort of a role. There will be many more studies and research done on fingerprints that will use more sophisticated methods as knowledge and technology continue to increase and with that more information will be learned and discovered.
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