January 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

How and Why Whiskers Whisk

Scientists at Weizmann Institute found some interesting things about whiskers, reports EurekAlert.  While working with rats, they noticed that the whiskers are always in motion, twitching and sensing objects around them.  They discovered that two kinds of neurons are involved in sending whisker signals to the brain.  The “whisking” neurons are active all the time, whether or not the whiskers feel any objects.  When an object is touched, “touch” neurons come into play.  Some detect the first touch, some send a signal when touch is lost, and others relay information during the duration of contact.  The report says this indicates that “perception is a dynamic dance in which hands, eyes and whiskers move towards the world to actively seek out sensation.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if this neurological response is active all over the body, even in human skin.  Skin has tiny vellum hairs all over, even on the palms of the hands.  Consider how your skin is sensitive to the slightest brush, even without touch if static electricity is about.  Probably similar neurons are involved.  All these sensations require specialized neurons and a brain that can process them.
    Wonder how touch sensation differs between women and hairier men.  Wonder what beards are for.  Are they just for looks, or do they have functions related to typical male roles?  They do seem to amplify the touch response.  Do they provide sensory data when crawling through dark caves?  Protection from the cold while hunting mammoths?  Are they wind indicators?  Love handles?  Maybe this will stimulate some experiments to prove they are not just vestigial leftovers of ape ancestry but have a function.  If it’s there, there’s probably a reason for it.  Maybe you shavers should stop depriving yourself of vital sensory information.
    Kids might want to experiment on the pet cat (gently).  Watch how much the cat whiskers twitch in wake and sleep.  Observe different reactions to touch, temperature, prolonged touch, stroking, and release.  Tell the kid that pulling is not allowed, on the cat or Dad.

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Mammals

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