Diminutive Digits Discern Delicate Details: Fingertip Size and the Sex Difference in Tactile Spatial Acuity
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We have observed that passive tactile spatial acuity, the ability to resolve the spatial structure of surfaces pressed upon the skin, differs subtly but consistently between the sexes, with women able to perceive finer surface detail than men. Eschewing complex central explanations, we hypothesized that this sex difference in somatosensory perception might result from simple physical differences between the fingers of women and men. To investigate, we tested 50 women and 50 men on a tactile grating orientation task and measured the surface area of the participants' index fingertips. In subsets of participants, we additionally measured finger skin compliance and optically imaged the fingerprint microstructure to count sweat pores. We show here that tactile perception improves with decreasing finger size, and that this correlation fully explains the better perception of women, who on average have smaller fingers than men. Indeed, when sex and finger size are both considered in statistical analyses, only finger size predicts tactile acuity. Thus, a man and a woman with fingers of equal size will, on average, enjoy equal tactile acuity. We further show that sweat pores, and presumably the Merkel receptors beneath them, are packed more densely in smaller fingers.
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