Our Skin and Connective Tissue

Learn how important the body’s skin and connective tissue is to the five somatic senses and gathering information for the brain.

| October 2019

Graphic from Adobe Stock/designua 

Traditional science considers the skin as our one and only sensory organ of touch. Our relationship with our skin is typically superficial, but it is really one of the miracles of evolution. Our skin is an intricate organ of consummate sophistication that has developed over millions of years. It comprises three distinct layers:

  • The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin that provides a barrier against foreign substances and trauma. It also creates our skin color and tone and contains endocrine cells called Langerhans, which act as a frontline for the immune system of the skin and other parts of the body.
  • The dermis is the skin’s thick middle layer of fibrous, elastic tissue made up of collagen and elastin. The dermis gives skin its suppleness and strength and contains sweat and sebaceous glands, nerve endings, blood vessels, connective tissue, and hair follicles.
  • The hypodermis is the deeper subcutaneous tissue made of fat, connective tissue, nerve fibers, and blood vessels that helps insulate the body from heat and cold, provides protective padding for bones and organs, keeps the skin attached to the muscles and tendons underneath, and stores energy.

As the sensory organ for touch, skin is one of the main gateways into the subconscious feeling intelligence we possess. It is also the largest organ of the body, with an area of eighteen to twenty square feet and a weight of seven to nine pounds. Sensory neurons densely enervate the skin, which has one of the highest concentrations of neurotransmitter/receptor cells outside of the brain, especially in the hands (palms, fingertips) and feet (soles, toes).

Author Peter Sterios. Photo by Jason and Laura Photography.

The sensory nerves of the hands and feet each have a specialized capsule on the peripheral end called a mechanoreceptor that physically links the nerve ending to the surrounding skin tissue. The physical sense of touch works like this: Mechanical deformations of the skin and soft tissues of the body cause a change in the shape of the capsule surrounding these nerve endings, which in turn detect this change in shape and produce a signal that is propagated to the rest of the nervous system, noting the touch’s location on the skin, the amount of force, and its velocity. Other touch receptors in the skin produce additional signals in response to the object’s temperature and shape, as well as the presence of chemical agents on the skin.

Sensory neurons transmit signals to the thalamus and areas of the cerebral cortex in the brain. The specific location of sensory neuron synapses in the brain determines how the touch signal is interpreted. All of our brains are similar in the broad arrangement of these sensory neurons, but research shows that “the details of the somatotopic map characterize each individual and are determined largely by experience [emphasis mine].”

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