Jessica Koehler Ph.D.

Perceiving Is Believing

How naive realism influences our perception of everything..

Posted January 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Yurly Lukin/Shutterstock

The only true voyage of discovery...would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. — Marcel Proust

Perception is everything—and it is flawed. Most of us navigate our daily lives believing we see the world as it is. Our brains are perceiving an objective reality, right? Well, not quite. Everything we bring in through our senses is interpreted through the filter of our past experiences.

Understanding Sensation and Perception

Sensation is physical energy detection by our sensory organs. Our eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, and skin relay raw data via a process of transduction, which is akin to the translation of physical energy—such as sound waves—into the electrochemical energy the brain understands. At this point, the information is the same from person to person—it is unbiased.

To understand human perception, you must first understand that all information in and of itself is meaningless. — Beau Lotto

While Dr. Lotto's statement is bold, from the perspective of neuroscience , it is true. Meaning is applied to everything, from the simplest to the most complex sensory input. Our brain's interpretation of the raw sensory information is known as perception. Everything from our senses is filtered through our unique system of past experiences in the world. Usually, the meaning we apply is functional and adequate—if not fully accurate, but sometimes our inaccurate perceptions create real-world difficulty.

Perceptual Illusions

There are numerous optical illusions that distinctly convey how easily our perception can lead us to incorrect conclusions. Psychologist Roger Shepard (1990) illustrated that our perceptions can be inaccurate with his famous table-top demonstration (see video below), which clearly establishes that our brains may fool us into perceiving an erroneous view of reality regarding even the simplest of visual perceptual questions.

Countless illusion examples may be found in psychology textbooks or via internet searches, but this captivating video unmistakably illustrates how our past experiences in the world interfere with our accurate perception regarding a simple line length comparison.

How does our brain get deceived ? We trust that our perceptual system constructs accurate representations of the surrounding world. However, our assumptions regarding perception are unsupported by evidence. The deficient understanding of how we perceive the world was originally termed naive realism by Lee Ross and his colleagues in the 1990s. Naive realism is thought to be the theoretical foundation for many cognitive biases , such as the fundamental attribution error , the false consensus effect, and the bias blind spot.

Perceptual illusions are endlessly fascinating and provide a microcosm of potentially faulty human perception. When we encounter these illusions, we initially believe we are seeing an accurate representation of reality only to be surprised by how easily our brains mislead us.

Inter-Group Conflict and Naive Realism

What happens when we extrapolate our perceptual shortcomings to large-scale human interaction? Too often, humans get stuck believing their view of the world is an objective reality. This, of course, leads to conflict with other humans who disagree, especially those we perceive to be part of an out-group . Naive realism leads us to reason that we see the world objectively—and that others do as well. When we encounter people who disagree with us on important matters, we tend to think they are uninformed, irrational, or biased.

Why does this happen? It is challenging and uncomfortable to confront our own understanding of the world, especially if we are unaware of our tendency for faulty interpretations of reality. Most people have likely not considered that their opinions about the world are filtered through their unique perceptual lens, which is fundamentally biased and based on past experiences.

How we perceive the world and important issues, from parenting to the political, is based on our perception. When we begin to understand that other people's experiences in the world vary greatly and influence how they interpret complex issues, we can begin to have a greater understanding of other points of view.

sensation and perception psychology essay

However, we tend to become more entrenched in our beliefs about our representations of reality when interacting with people in a different "tribe." Instead of seeking common ground—which can be an effective method to initiate belief change, we instead become more tribal and refute any information from our rival group.

What Can We Do?

The polarization in our modern world is widespread and appears to be increasing. Determining how to find commonalities between groups can feel impossible due to naive realism. Fascinatingly, researchers have uncovered a simple intervention that may promote greater understanding between members of rival groups.

Dr. Meytal Nasir (2014) and her colleagues set out to empirically investigate whether people could be more open to narratives of their adversaries (out-group) following an intervention that raises awareness regarding the concept of naive realism and the implications in the real world.

The researchers conducted their study within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an exemplar of a well-known intractable struggle. Their focus was to raise awareness of naive realism as a universal cognitive psychological bias that fuels adversaries to adhere to a collective narrative of the ingroup and reject the out-group narrative during conflict.

Results from the research indicated that the intervention—a short text describing naive realism and its implications—did produce an increased openness to adversary's narratives by raising the experimental group members' awareness of cognitive limitations. Fascinatingly, the intervention made no mention of the rival group or the specific conflict, yet still brought about positive change.

The Nasie research aligns with Dr. Lotto's commentary about how we can overcome our perceptual deficiencies.

By becoming aware of the principles by which your perceptual brain works, you can become an active participant in your own perceptions and in this way change them in the future. — Beau Lotto

Final Thoughts

A metacognitive strategy aimed at our perceptual system is a promising intervention for intractable disagreements between groups. While tribalism was certainly evolutionarily adaptive for humans thousands of years ago, current trends suggest it is detrimental and leading to deleterious consequences across the globe.

With knowledge regarding naive realism, we need to look beyond our own experiences and attempt to see the world with the eyes of others—especially those we perceive to be in out-groups. The insight uncovered with this new viewpoint may or may not move our positions on various issues, but as we navigate an ever-polarizing world of divisiveness—fueled by social media , it may be our only hope (sorry Obi-Wan).

Jessica Koehler Ph.D.

Dr. Jessica Koehler, an Associate Faculty Member in the University of Arizona Global Campus Psychology Department, has a Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Maryland.

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What Is Perception?

Recognizing Environmental Stimuli Through the Five Senses

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

sensation and perception psychology essay

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

sensation and perception psychology essay

  • How It Works
  • Improvement Tips

Perception refers to our sensory experience of the world. It is the process of using our senses to become aware of objects, relationships. It is through this experience that we gain information about the environment around us.

Perception relies on the cognitive functions we use to process information, such as utilizing memory to recognize the face of a friend or detect a familiar scent. Through the perception process, we are able to both identify and respond to environmental stimuli.

Perception includes the five senses; touch, sight, sound, smell , and taste . It also includes what is known as proprioception, which is a set of senses that enable us to detect changes in body position and movement.

Many stimuli surround us at any given moment. Perception acts as a filter that allows us to exist within and interpret the world without becoming overwhelmed by this abundance of stimuli.

Types of Perception

The types of perception are often separated by the different senses. This includes visual perception, scent perception, touch perception, sound perception, and taste perception. We perceive our environment using each of these, often simultaneously.

There are also different types of perception in psychology, including:

  • Person perception refers to the ability to identify and use social cues about people and relationships.
  • Social perception is how we perceive certain societies and can be affected by things such as stereotypes and generalizations.

Another type of perception is selective perception. This involves paying attention to some parts of our environment while ignoring others.

The different types of perception allow us to experience our environment and interact with it in ways that are both appropriate and meaningful.

How Perception Works

Through perception, we become more aware of (and can respond to) our environment. We use perception in communication to identify how our loved ones may feel. We use perception in behavior to decide what we think about individuals and groups.

We are perceiving things continuously, even though we don't typically spend a great deal of time thinking about them. For example, the light that falls on our eye's retinas transforms into a visual image unconsciously and automatically. Subtle changes in pressure against our skin, allowing us to feel objects, also occur without a single thought.

Perception Process

To better understand how we become aware of and respond to stimuli in the world around us, it can be helpful to look at the perception process. This varies somewhat for every sense.

In regard to our sense of sight, the perception process looks like this:

  • Environmental stimulus: The world is full of stimuli that can attract attention. Environmental stimulus is everything in the environment that has the potential to be perceived.
  • Attended stimulus: The attended stimulus is the specific object in the environment on which our attention is focused.
  • Image on the retina: This part of the perception process involves light passing through the cornea and pupil, onto the lens of the eye. The cornea helps focus the light as it enters and the iris controls the size of the pupils to determine how much light to let in. The cornea and lens act together to project an inverted image onto the retina.
  • Transduction: The image on the retina is then transformed into electrical signals through a process known as transduction. This allows the visual messages to be transmitted to the brain to be interpreted.
  • Neural processing: After transduction, the electrical signals undergo neural processing. The path followed by a particular signal depends on what type of signal it is (i.e. an auditory signal or a visual signal).
  • Perception: In this step of the perception process, you perceive the stimulus object in the environment. It is at this point that you become consciously aware of the stimulus.
  • Recognition: Perception doesn't just involve becoming consciously aware of the stimuli. It is also necessary for the brain to categorize and interpret what you are sensing. The ability to interpret and give meaning to the object is the next step, known as recognition.
  • Action: The action phase of the perception process involves some type of motor activity that occurs in response to the perceived stimulus. This might involve a major action, like running toward a person in distress. It can also involve doing something as subtle as blinking your eyes in response to a puff of dust blowing through the air.

Think of all the things you perceive on a daily basis. At any given moment, you might see familiar objects, feel a person's touch against your skin, smell the aroma of a home-cooked meal, or hear the sound of music playing in your neighbor's apartment. All of these help make up your conscious experience and allow you to interact with the people and objects around you.

Recap of the Perception Process

  • Environmental stimulus
  • Attended stimulus
  • Image on the retina
  • Transduction
  • Neural processing
  • Recognition

Factors Influencing Perception

What makes perception somewhat complex is that we don't all perceive things the same way. One person may perceive a dog jumping on them as a threat, while another person may perceive this action as the pup just being excited to see them.

Our perceptions of people and things are shaped by our prior experiences, our interests, and how carefully we process information. This can cause one person to perceive the exact same person or situation differently than someone else.

Perception can also be affected by our personality. For instance, research has found that four of the Big 5 personality traits —openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism—can impact our perception of organizational justice.

Conversely, our perceptions can also affect our personality. If you perceive that your boss is treating you unfairly, for example, you may show traits related to anger or frustration. If you perceive your spouse to be loving and caring, you may show similar traits in return.

Are Perception and Attitude the Same?

While they are similar, perception and attitude are two different things. Perception is how we interpret the world around us, while our attitude (our emotions, beliefs, and behaviors) can impact these perceptions.

Tips to Improve Perception

If you want to improve your perception skills, there are some things that you can do. Actions you can take that may help you perceive more in the world around you—or at least focus on the things that are important—include:

  • Pay attention. Actively notice the world around you, using all your senses. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch? Using your sense of proprioception, notice the movements of your arms and legs, or your changes in body position.
  • Make meaning of what you perceive. The recognition stage of the perception process is essential since it allows you to make sense of the world around you. Place objects in meaningful categories, so you can understand and react appropriately.
  • Take action. The final step of the perception process involves taking some sort of action in response to your environmental stimulus. This could involve a variety of actions, such as stopping to smell the flower you see on the side of the road, incorporating more of your senses.

Potential Pitfalls of Perception

The perception process does not always go smoothly, and there are a number of things that may interfere with our ability to interpret and respond to our environment. One is having a disorder that impacts perception.

Perceptual disorders are cognitive conditions marked by an impaired ability to perceive objects or concepts. Some disorders that may affect perception include:

  • Spatial neglect syndromes, which involve not attending to stimuli on one side of the body
  • Prosopagnosia, also called face blindness, is a disorder that makes it difficult to recognize faces
  • Aphantasia , a condition characterized by an inability to visualize things in your mind
  • Schizophrenia , which is marked by abnormal perceptions of reality

Some of these conditions may be influenced by genetics, while others result from stroke or brain injury.

Perception can also be negatively affected by certain factors. For instance, one study found that when people viewed images of others, they perceived individuals with nasal deformities as having less satisfactory personality traits. So, factors such as this can potentially affect personality perception.

History of Perception

Interest in perception dates back to the time of ancient Greek philosophers who were interested in how people know the world and gain understanding. As psychology emerged as a science separate from philosophy, researchers became interested in understanding how different aspects of perception worked—particularly, the perception of color.

In addition to understanding basic physiological processes, psychologists were also interested in understanding how the mind interprets and organizes these perceptions.

Gestalt psychologists proposed a holistic approach, suggesting that the sum equals more than the sum of its parts.  Cognitive psychologists have also worked to understand how motivations and expectations can play a role in the process of perception.

As time progresses, researchers continue to investigate perception on the neural level. They also look at how injury, conditions, and substances might affect perception.

American Psychological Association. Perception .

University of Minnesota. 3.4 Perception . Organizational Behavior .

Jhangiani R, Tarry H. 5.4 Individual differences in person perception . Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International H5P Edition .

Aggarwal A, Nobi K, Mittal A, Rastogi S. Does personality affect the individual's perceptions of organizational justice? The mediating role of organizational politics . Benchmark Int J . 2022;29(3):997-1026. doi:10.1108/BIJ-08-2020-0414

Saylor Academy. Human relations: Perception's effect . Human Relations .

ICFAI Business School. Perception and attitude (ethics) . Personal Effectiveness Management .

King DJ, Hodgekins J, Chouinard PA, Chouinard VA, Sperandio I. A review of abnormalities in the perception of visual illusions in schizophrenia .  Psychon Bull Rev . 2017;24(3):734‐751. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1168-5

van Schijndel O, Tasman AJ, Listschel R. The nose influences visual and personality perception . Facial Plast Surg . 2015;31(05):439-445. doi:10.1055/s-0035-1565009

Goldstein E. Sensation and Perception .

Yantis S. Sensation and Perception .

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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4 Sensation and Perception

A photograph shows a person playing a piano on the sidewalk near a busy intersection in a city.

Imagine standing on a city street corner. You might be struck by movement everywhere as cars and people go about their business, by the sound of a street musician’s melody or a horn honking in the distance, by the smell of exhaust fumes or of food being sold by a nearby vendor, and by the sensation of hard pavement under your feet.

We rely on our sensory systems to provide important information about our surroundings. We use this information to successfully navigate and interact with our environment so that we can find nourishment, seek shelter, maintain social relationships, and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

This chapter will provide an overview of how sensory information is received and processed by the nervous system and how that affects our conscious experience of the world. We begin by learning the distinction between sensation and perception. Then we consider the physical properties of light and sound stimuli, along with an overview of the basic structure and function of the major sensory systems. The chapter will close with a discussion of a historically important theory of perception called Gestalt.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between sensation and perception
  • Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold
  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor,  sensation  has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as  transduction .

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception).

The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold.  Absolute threshold  refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962).

It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called  subliminal messages . A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: This is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: We receive it, but we are not consciously aware of it. Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs. Research evidence shows that in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013).

Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the  just noticeable difference (jnd)  or  difference threshold . Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message that caused the cell phone screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law: The difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus, as the example illustrates.

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world.  Perception  refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing.  Bottom-up processing  refers to sensory information from a stimulus in the environment driving a process, and  top-down processing  refers to knowledge and expectancy driving a process, as shown in  Figure 5.2  (Egeth & Yantis, 1997; Fine & Minnery, 2009; Yantis & Egeth, 1999).

The figure includes two vertical arrows. The first arrow comes from the word “Top” and points downward to the word “Down.” The explanation reads, “Top-down processing occurs when previous experience and expectations are first used to recognize stimuli.” The second arrow comes from the word “bottom” and points upward to the word “up.” The explanation reads, “Bottom-up processing occurs when we sense basic features of stimuli and then integrate them.”

Imagine that you and some friends are sitting in a crowded restaurant eating lunch and talking. It is very noisy, and you are concentrating on your friend’s face to hear what she is saying, then the sound of breaking glass and the clang of metal pans hitting the floor rings out. The server dropped a large tray of food. Although you were attending to your meal and conversation, that crashing sound would likely get through your attentional filters and capture your attention. You would have no choice but to notice it. That attentional capture would be caused by the sound from the environment: it would be bottom-up.

Alternatively, top-down processes are generally goal-directed, slow, deliberate, effortful, and under your control (Fine & Minnery, 2009; Miller & Cohen, 2001; Miller & D’Esposito, 2005). For instance, if you misplaced your keys, how would you look for them? If you had a yellow key fob, you would probably look for the yellowness of a certain size in specific locations, such as on the counter, coffee table, and other similar places. You would not look for yellowness on your ceiling fan, because you know keys are not normally lying on top of a ceiling fan. That act of searching for a certain size of yellowness in some locations and not others would be top-down—under your control and based on your experience.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the  sensation  is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the  perception  may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as  sensory adaptation . Imagine going to a city that you have never visited. You check in to the hotel, but when you get to your room, there is a road construction sign with a bright flashing light outside your window. Unfortunately, there are no other rooms available, so you are stuck with a flashing light. You decide to watch television to unwind. The flashing light was extremely annoying when you first entered your room. It was as if someone was continually turning a bright yellow spotlight on and off in your room, but after watching television for a short while, you no longer notice the light flashing. The light is still flashing and filling your room with yellow light every few seconds, and the photoreceptors in your eyes still sense the light, but you no longer perceive the rapid changes in lighting conditions. That you no longer perceive the flashing light demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

One of the most interesting demonstrations of how important attention is in determining our perception of the environment occurred in a famous study conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999). In this study, participants watched a video of people dressed in black and white passing basketballs. Participants were asked to count the number of times the team dressed in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla costume walks among the two teams. You would think that someone would notice the gorilla, right? Nearly half of the people who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all, despite the fact that he was clearly visible for nine seconds. Because participants were so focused on the number of times the team dressed in white was passing the ball, they completely tuned out other visual information.  Inattentional blindness  is the failure to notice something that is completely visible because the person was actively attending to something else and did not pay attention to other things (Mack & Rock, 1998; Simons & Chabris, 1999).

In a similar experiment, researchers tested inattentional blindness by asking participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other color. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one-third of subjects did not notice it ( Figure 5.3 ) (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

A photograph shows a person staring at a screen that displays one red cross toward the left side and numerous black and white shapes all over.

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise. The ability to identify a stimulus when it is embedded in a distracting background is called  signal detection theory . This might also explain why a mother is awakened by a quiet murmur from her baby but not by other sounds that occur while she is asleep. Signal detection theory has practical applications, such as increasing air traffic controller accuracy. Controllers need to be able to detect planes among many signals (blips) that appear on the radar screen and follow those planes as they move through the sky. In fact, the original work of the researcher who developed signal detection theory was focused on improving the sensitivity of air traffic controllers to plane blips (Swets, 1964).

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this chapter, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western  cultures  were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the  Müller-Lyer  illusion ( Figure 5.4 ): The lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

Two vertical lines are shown on the left in (a). They each have V–shaped brackets on their ends, but one line has the brackets angled toward its center, and the other has the brackets angled away from its center. The lines are the same length, but the second line appears longer due to the orientation of the brackets on its endpoints. To the right of these lines is a two-dimensional drawing of walls meeting at 90-degree angles. Within this drawing are 2 lines which are the same length, but appear different lengths. Because one line is bordering a window on a wall that has the appearance of being farther away from the perspective of the viewer, it appears shorter than the other line which marks the 90 degree angle where the facing wall appears closer to the viewer’s perspective point.

These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odor and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998).

Children described as thrill-seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavors (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced-fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

  • Describe important physical features of wave forms
  • Show how physical properties of light waves are associated with perceptual experience
  • Show how physical properties of sound waves are associated with perceptual experience

Amplitude and Wavelength

Two physical characteristics of a wave are amplitude and wavelength ( Figure 5.5 ). The  amplitude  of a wave is the distance from the center line to the top point of the crest or the bottom point of the trough.  Wavelength  refers to the length of a wave from one peak to the next.

A diagram illustrates the basic parts of a wave. Moving from left to right, the wavelength line begins above a straight horizontal line and falls and rises equally above and below that line. One of the areas where the wavelength line reaches its highest point is labeled “Peak.” A horizontal bracket, labeled “Wavelength,” extends from this area to the next peak. One of the areas where the wavelength reaches its lowest point is labeled “Trough.” A vertical bracket, labeled “Amplitude,” extends from a “Peak” to a “Trough.”

Wavelength is directly related to the frequency of a given wave form.  Frequency  refers to the number of waves that pass a given point in a given time period and is often expressed in terms of  hertz (Hz) , or cycles per second. Longer wavelengths will have lower frequencies, and shorter wavelengths will have higher frequencies ( Figure 5.6 ).

Stacked vertically are 5 waves of different colors and wavelengths. The top wave is red with a long wavelengths, which indicate a low frequency. Moving downward, the color of each wave is different: orange, yellow, green, and blue. Also moving downward, the wavelengths become shorter as the frequencies increase.

Light Waves

The  visible spectrum  is the portion of the larger  electromagnetic spectrum  that we can see. As  Figure 5.7 shows, the electromagnetic spectrum encompasses all of the electromagnetic radiation that occurs in our environment and includes gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared light, microwaves, and radio waves. The visible spectrum in humans is associated with wavelengths that range from 380 to 740 nm—a very small distance since a nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter. Other species can detect other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. For instance, honeybees can see light in the ultraviolet range (Wakakuwa, Stavenga, & Arikawa, 2007), and some snakes can detect infrared radiation in addition to more traditional visual light cues (Chen, Deng, Brauth, Ding, & Tang, 2012; Hartline, Kass, & Loop, 1978).

This illustration shows the wavelength, frequency, and size of objects across the electromagnetic spectrum.. At the top, various wavelengths are given in sequence from small to large, with a parallel illustration of a wave with increasing frequency. These are the provided wavelengths, measured in meters: “Gamma ray 10 to the negative twelfth power,” “x-ray 10 to the negative tenth power,” ultraviolet 10 to the negative eighth power,” “visible .5 times 10 to the negative sixth power,” “infrared 10 to the negative fifth power,” microwave 10 to the negative second power,” and “radio 10 cubed.”Another section is labeled “About the size of” and lists from left to right: “Atomic nuclei,” “Atoms,” “Molecules,” “Protozoans,” “Pinpoints,” “Honeybees,” “Humans,” and “Buildings” with an illustration of each . At the bottom is a line labeled “Frequency” with the following measurements in hertz: 10 to the powers of 20, 18, 16, 15, 12, 8, and 4. From left to right the line changes in color from purple to red with the remaining colors of the visible spectrum in between.

In humans, light wavelength is associated with the perception of color ( Figure 5.8 ). Within the visible spectrum, our experience of red is associated with longer wavelengths, greens are intermediate, and blues and violets are shorter in wavelength. (An easy way to remember this is the mnemonic ROYGBIV:  r ed,  o range,  y ellow,  g reen,  b lue,  i ndigo,  v iolet.) The amplitude of light waves is associated with our experience of brightness or intensity of color, with larger amplitudes appearing brighter.

A line provides Wavelength in nanometers for “400,” “500,” “600,” and “700” nanometers. Within this line are all of the colors of the visible spectrum. Below this line, labeled from left to right are “Cosmic radiation,” “Gamma rays,” “X-rays,” “Ultraviolet,” then a small callout area for the line above containing the colors in the visual spectrum, followed by “Infrared,” “Terahertz radiation,” “Radar,” “Television and radio broadcasting,” and “AC circuits.”

Sound Waves

Like light waves, the physical properties of sound waves are associated with various aspects of our perception of sound. The frequency of a sound wave is associated with our perception of that sound’s  pitch . High-frequency sound waves are perceived as high-pitched sounds, while low-frequency sound waves are perceived as low-pitched sounds. The audible range of sound frequencies is between 20 and 20000 Hz, with the greatest sensitivity to those frequencies that fall in the middle of this range.

As was the case with the visible spectrum, other species show differences in their audible ranges. For instance, chickens have a very limited audible range, from 125 to 2000 Hz. Mice have an audible range from 1000 to 91000 Hz, and the beluga whale’s audible range is from 1000 to 123000 Hz. Our pet dogs and cats have audible ranges of about 70–45000 Hz and 45–64000 Hz, respectively (Strain, 2003).

The loudness of a given sound is closely associated with the amplitude of the sound wave. Higher amplitudes are associated with louder sounds. Loudness is measured in terms of  decibels (dB) , a logarithmic unit of sound intensity. A typical conversation would correlate with 60 dB; a rock concert might check-in at 120 dB ( Figure 5.9 ). A whisper 5 feet away or rustling leaves are at the low end of our hearing range; sounds like a window air conditioner, a normal conversation, and even heavy traffic or a vacuum cleaner are within a tolerable range. However, there is the potential for hearing damage from about 80 dB to 130 dB: These are sounds of a food processor, power lawnmower, heavy truck (25 feet away), subway train (20 feet away), live rock music, and a jackhammer. About one-third of all hearing loss is due to noise exposure, and the louder the sound, the shorter the exposure needed to cause hearing damage (Le, Straatman, Lea, & Westerberg, 2017). Listening to music through earbuds at maximum volume (around 100–105 decibels) can cause noise-induced hearing loss after 15 minutes of exposure. Although listening to music at maximum volume may not seem to cause damage, it increases the risk of age-related hearing loss (Kujawa & Liberman, 2006). The threshold for pain is about 130 dB, a jet plane taking off, or a revolver firing at close range (Dunkle, 1982).

This illustration has a vertical bar in the middle labeled Decibels (dB) numbered 0 to 150 in intervals from the bottom to the top. To the left of the bar, the “sound intensity” of different sounds is labeled: “Hearing threshold” is 0; “Whisper” is 30, “soft music” is 40, “Refrigerator” is 45, “Safe” and “normal conversation” is 60, “Heavy city traffic” with “permanent damage after 8 hours of exposure” is 85, “Motorcycle” with “permanent damage after 6 hours exposure” is 95, “Earbuds max volume” with “permanent damage after 15 miutes exposure” is 105, “Risk of hearing loss” is 110, “pain threshold” is 130, “harmful” is 140, and “firearms” with “immediate permanent damage” is 150. To the right of the bar are photographs depicting “common sound”: At 20 decibels is a picture of rustling leaves; At 60 is two people talking, at 85 is traffic, at 105 is ear buds, at 120 is a music concert, and at 130 are jets.

Although wave amplitude is generally associated with loudness, there is some interaction between frequency and amplitude in our perception of loudness within the audible range. For example, a 10 Hz sound wave is inaudible no matter the amplitude of the wave. A 1000 Hz sound wave, on the other hand, would vary dramatically in terms of perceived loudness as the amplitude of the wave increased.

Of course, different musical instruments can play the same musical note at the same level of loudness, yet they still sound quite different. This is known as the timbre of a sound.  Timbre  refers to a sound’s purity, and it is affected by the complex interplay of frequency, amplitude, and timing of sound waves.

  • Describe the basic anatomy of the visual system
  • Discuss how rods and cones contribute to different aspects of vision
  • Describe how monocular and binocular cues are used in the perception of depth

The visual system constructs a mental representation of the world around us ( Figure 5.10 ). This contributes to our ability to successfully navigate through physical space and interact with important individuals and objects in our environments. This section will provide an overview of the basic anatomy and function of the visual system. In addition, we will explore our ability to perceive color and depth.

Several photographs of peoples’ eyes are shown.

Anatomy of the Visual System

The eye is the major sensory organ involved in  vision  ( Figure 5.11 ). Light waves are transmitted across the cornea and enter the eye through the pupil. The  cornea  is the transparent covering over the eye. It serves as a barrier between the inner eye and the outside world, and it is involved in focusing light waves that enter the eye. The  pupil  is the small opening in the eye through which light passes, and the size of the pupil can change as a function of light levels as well as emotional arousal. When light levels are low, the pupil will become dilated, or expanded, to allow more light to enter the eye. When light levels are high, the pupil will constrict, or become smaller, to reduce the amount of light that enters the eye. The pupil’s size is controlled by muscles that are connected to the  iris , which is the colored portion of the eye.

Different parts of the eye are labeled in this illustration. The cornea, pupil, iris, and lens are situated toward the front of the eye, and at the back are the optic nerve, fovea, and retina.

After passing through the pupil, light crosses the  lens , a curved, transparent structure that serves to provide additional focus. The lens is attached to muscles that can change its shape to aid in focusing light that is reflected from near or far objects. In a normal-sighted individual, the lens will focus images perfectly on a small indentation in the back of the eye known as the  fovea , which is part of the  retina , the light-sensitive lining of the eye. The fovea contains densely packed specialized photoreceptor cells ( Figure 5.12 ). These  photoreceptor  cells, known as cones, are light-detecting cells. The  cones  are specialized types of photoreceptors that work best in bright light conditions. Cones are very sensitive to acute detail and provide tremendous spatial resolution. They also are directly involved in our ability to perceive color.

While cones are concentrated in the fovea, where images tend to be focused, rods, another type of photoreceptor, are located throughout the remainder of the retina.  Rods  are specialized photoreceptors that work well in low light conditions, and while they lack the spatial resolution and color function of the cones, they are involved in our vision in dimly lit environments as well as in our perception of movement on the periphery of our visual field.

This illustration shows light reaching the optic nerve, beneath which are Ganglion cells, and then rods and cones.

We have all experienced the different sensitivities of rods and cones when making the transition from a brightly lit environment to a dimly lit environment. Imagine going to see a blockbuster movie on a clear summer day. As you walk from the brightly lit lobby into the dark theater, you notice that you immediately have difficulty seeing much of anything. After a few minutes, you begin to adjust to the darkness and can see the interior of the theater. In the bright environment, your vision was dominated primarily by cone activity. As you move to the dark environment, rod activity dominates, but there is a delay in transitioning between the phases. If your rods do not transform light into nerve impulses as easily and efficiently as they should, you will have difficulty seeing in dim light, a condition known as night blindness.

Rods and cones are connected (via several interneurons) to retinal ganglion cells. Axons from the retinal ganglion cells converge and exit through the back of the eye to form the  optic nerve . The optic nerve carries visual information from the retina to the brain. There is a point in the visual field called the  blind spot : Even when light from a small object is focused on the blind spot, we do not see it. We are not consciously aware of our blind spots for two reasons: First, each eye gets a slightly different view of the visual field; therefore, the blind spots do not overlap. Second, our visual system fills in the blind spot so that although we cannot respond to visual information that occurs in that portion of the visual field, we are also not aware that information is missing.

The optic nerve from each eye merges just below the brain at a point called the  optic chiasm . As  Figure 5.13  shows, the optic chiasm is an X-shaped structure that sits just below the cerebral cortex at the front of the brain. At the point of the optic chiasm, information from the right visual field (which comes from both eyes) is sent to the left side of the brain, and information from the left visual field is sent to the right side of the brain.

An illustration shows the location of the occipital lobe, optic chiasm, optic nerve, and the eyes in relation to their position in the brain and head.

Once inside the brain, visual information is sent via a number of structures to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain for processing. Visual information might be processed in parallel pathways which can generally be described as the “what pathway” and the “where/how” pathway. The “what pathway” is involved in object recognition and identification, while the “where/how pathway” is involved with location in space and how one might interact with a particular visual stimulus (Milner & Goodale, 2008; Ungerleider & Haxby, 1994). For example, when you see a ball rolling down the street, the “what pathway” identifies what the object is, and the “where/how pathway” identifies its location or movement in space.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? The Ethics of Research Using Animals

David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1981 for their research on the visual system. They collaborated for more than twenty years and made significant discoveries about the neurology of visual perception (Hubel & Wiesel, 1959, 1962, 1963, 1970; Wiesel & Hubel, 1963). They studied animals, mostly cats and monkeys. Although they used several techniques, they did considerable single-unit recordings, during which tiny electrodes were inserted in the animal’s brain to determine when a single cell was activated. Among their many discoveries, they found that specific brain cells respond to lines with specific orientations (called ocular dominance), and they mapped the way those cells are arranged in areas of the visual cortex known as columns and hypercolumns.

In some of their research, they sutured one eye of newborn kittens closed and followed the development of the kittens’ vision. They discovered there was a critical period of development for vision. If kittens were deprived of input from one eye, other areas of their visual cortex filled in the area that was normally used by the eye that was sewn closed. In other words, neural connections that exist at birth can be lost if they are deprived of sensory input.

What do you think about sewing a kitten’s eye closed for research? To many animal advocates, this would seem brutal, abusive, and unethical. What if you could do research that would help ensure babies and children born with certain conditions could develop normal vision instead of becoming blind? Would you want that research done? Would you conduct that research, even if it meant causing some harm to cats? Would you think the same way if you were the parent of such a child? What if you worked at the animal shelter?

Like virtually every other industrialized nation, the United States permits medical experimentation on animals, with few limitations (assuming sufficient scientific justification). The goal of any laws that exist is not to ban such tests but rather to limit unnecessary animal suffering by establishing standards for the humane treatment and housing of animals in laboratories.

As explained by Stephen Latham, the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale (2012), possible legal and regulatory approaches to animal testing vary on a continuum from strong government regulation and monitoring of all experimentation at one end, to a self-regulated approach that depends on the ethics of the researchers at the other end. The United Kingdom has the most significant regulatory scheme, whereas Japan uses the self-regulation approach. The U.S. approach is somewhere in the middle, the result of a gradual blending of the two approaches.

There is no question that medical research is a valuable and important practice. The question is whether the use of animals is a necessary or even best practice for producing the most reliable results. Alternatives include the use of patient-drug databases, virtual drug trials, computer models and simulations, and noninvasive imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans (“Animals in Science/Alternatives,” n.d.). Other techniques, such as microdosing, use humans not as test animals but as a means to improve the accuracy and reliability of test results. In vitro methods based on human cell and tissue cultures, stem cells, and genetic testing methods are also increasingly available.

Today, at the local level, any facility that uses animals and receives federal funding must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that ensures that the NIH guidelines are being followed. The IACUC must include researchers, administrators, a veterinarian, and at least one person with no ties to the institution: that is, a concerned citizen. This committee also performs inspections of laboratories and protocols.

Color and Depth Perception

We do not see the world in black and white; neither do we see it as two-dimensional (2-D) or flat (just height and width, no depth). Let’s look at how color vision works and how we perceive three dimensions (height, width, and depth).

Color Vision

Normal-sighted individuals have three different types of cones that mediate  color vision . Each of these cone types is maximally sensitive to a slightly different wavelength of light. According to the  trichromatic theory of color vision , shown in  Figure 5.14 , all colors in the spectrum can be produced by combining red, green, and blue. The three types of cones are each receptive to one of the colors.

A graph is shown with “sensitivity” plotted on the y-axis and “Wavelength” in nanometers plotted along the x-axis with measurements of 400, 500, 600, and 700. Three lines in different colors move from the base to the peak of the y axis, and back to the base. The blue line begins at 400 nm and hits its peak of sensitivity around 455 nanometers, before the sensitivity drops off at roughly the same rate at which it increased, returning to the lowest sensitivity around 530 nm . The green line begins at 400 nm and reaches its peak of sensitivity around 535 nanometers. Its sensitivity then decreases at roughly the same rate at which it increased, returning to the lowest sensitivity around 650 nm. The red line follows the same pattern as the first two, beginning at 400 nm, increasing and decreasing at the same rate, and it hits its height of sensitivity around 580 nanometers. Below this graph is a horizontal bar showing the colors of the visible spectrum.

CONNECT THE CONCEPTS

Colorblindness: a personal story.

Several years ago, I dressed to go to a public function and walked into the kitchen where my 7-year-old daughter sat. She looked up at me, and in her most stern voice, said, “You can’t wear that.” I asked, “Why not?” and she informed me the colors of my clothes did not match. She had complained frequently that I was bad at matching my shirts, pants, and ties, but this time, she sounded especially alarmed. As a single father with no one else to ask at home, I drove us to the nearest convenience store and asked the store clerk if my clothes matched. She said my pants were a bright green color, my shirt was a reddish-orange, and my tie was brown. She looked at me quizzically and said, “No way do your clothes match.” Over the next few days, I started asking my coworkers and friends if my clothes matched. After several days of being told that my coworkers just thought I had “a really unique style,” I made an appointment with an eye doctor and was tested ( Figure 5.15 ). It was then that I found out that I was colorblind. I cannot differentiate between most greens, browns, and reds. Fortunately, other than unknowingly being badly dressed, my colorblindness rarely harms my day-to-day life.

The figure includes three large circles that are made up of smaller circles of varying shades and sizes. Inside each large circle is a number that is made visible only by its different color. The first circle has an orange number 12 in a background of green. The second color has a green number 74 in a background of orange. The third circle has a red and brown number 42 in a background of black and gray.

Some forms of color deficiency are rare. Seeing in grayscale (only shades of black and white) is extremely rare, and people who do so only have rods, which means they have very low visual acuity and cannot see very well. The most common X-linked inherited abnormality is red-green color blindness (Birch, 2012). Approximately 8% of males of European Caucasian descent, 5% of Asian males, 4% of African males, and less than 2% of indigenous American males, Australian males, and Polynesian males have red-green color deficiency (Birch, 2012). Comparatively, only about 0.4% of females of European Caucasian descent have red-green color deficiency (Birch, 2012).

The trichromatic theory of color vision is not the only theory—another major theory of color vision is known as the  opponent-process theory . According to this theory, color is coded in opponent pairs: black-white, yellow-blue, and green-red. The basic idea is that some cells of the visual system are excited by one of the opponent colors and inhibited by the other. So, a cell that was excited by wavelengths associated with green would be inhibited by wavelengths associated with red, and vice versa. One of the implications of opponent processing is that we do not experience greenish-reds or yellowish-blues as colors. Another implication is that this leads to the experience of negative afterimages. An  afterimage describes the continuation of a visual sensation after the removal of the stimulus. For example, when you stare briefly at the sun and then look away from it, you may still perceive a spot of light although the stimulus (the sun) has been removed. When color is involved in the stimulus, the color pairings identified in the opponent-process theory lead to a negative afterimage. You can test this concept using the flag in  Figure 5.16 .

An illustration shows a green flag with a thick, black-bordered yellow lines meeting slightly to the left of the center. A small white dot sits within the yellow space in the exact center of the flag.

But these two theories—the trichromatic theory of color vision and the opponent-process theory—are not mutually exclusive. Research has shown that they just apply to different levels of the nervous system. For visual processing on the retina, the trichromatic theory applies: the cones are responsive to three different wavelengths that represent red, blue, and green. But once the signal moves past the retina on its way to the brain, the cells respond in a way consistent with opponent-process theory (Land, 1959; Kaiser, 1997).

Depth Perception

Our ability to perceive spatial relationships in three-dimensional (3-D) space is known as  depth perception . With depth perception, we can describe things as being in front, behind, above, below, or to the side of other things.

Our world is three-dimensional, so it makes sense that our mental representation of the world has three-dimensional properties. We use a variety of cues in a visual scene to establish our sense of depth. Some of these are  binocular   cues , which means that they rely on the use of both eyes. One example of a binocular depth cue is  binocular disparity , the slightly different view of the world that each of our eyes receives. To experience this slightly different view, do this simple exercise: extend your arm fully and extend one of your fingers and focus on that finger. Now, close your left eye without moving your head, then open your left eye and close your right eye without moving your head. You will notice that your finger seems to shift as you alternate between the two eyes because of the slightly different view each eye has of your finger.

A 3-D movie works on the same principle: the special glasses you wear allow the two slightly different images projected onto the screen to be seen separately by your left and your right eye. As your brain processes these images, you have the illusion that the leaping animal or running person is coming right toward you.

Although we rely on binocular cues to experience depth in our 3-D world, we can also perceive depth in 2-D arrays. Think about all the paintings and photographs you have seen. Generally, you pick up on depth in these images even though the visual stimulus is 2-D. When we do this, we are relying on a number of  monocular cues , or cues that require only one eye. If you think you can’t see depth with one eye, note that you don’t bump into things when using only one eye while walking—and, in fact, we have more monocular cues than binocular cues.

An example of a monocular cue would be what is known as linear perspective.  Linear perspective  refers to the fact that we perceive depth when we see two parallel lines that seem to converge in an image ( Figure 5.17 ). Some other monocular depth cues are interposition, the partial overlap of objects, and the relative size and closeness of images to the horizon.

A photograph shows an empty road that continues toward the horizon.

DIG DEEPER: Stereoblindness

Bruce Bridgeman was born with an extreme case of lazy eye that resulted in him being stereoblind, or unable to respond to binocular cues of depth. He relied heavily on monocular depth cues, but he never had a true appreciation of the 3-D nature of the world around him. This all changed one night in 2012 while Bruce was seeing a movie with his wife.

The movie the couple was going to see was shot in 3-D, and even though he thought it was a waste of money, Bruce paid for the 3-D glasses when he purchased his ticket. As soon as the film began, Bruce put on the glasses and experienced something completely new. For the first time in his life, he appreciated the true depth of the world around him. Remarkably, his ability to perceive depth persisted outside of the movie theater.

There are cells in the nervous system that respond to binocular depth cues. Normally, these cells require activation during early development in order to persist, so experts familiar with Bruce’s case (and others like his) assume that at some point in his development, Bruce must have experienced at least a fleeting moment of binocular vision. It was enough to ensure the survival of the cells in the visual system tuned to binocular cues. The mystery now is why it took Bruce nearly 70 years to have these cells activated (Peck, 2012).

  • Describe the basic anatomy and function of the auditory system
  • Explain how we encode and perceive pitch
  • Discuss how we localize sound

Our auditory system converts pressure waves into meaningful sounds. This translates into our ability to hear the sounds of nature, to appreciate the beauty of music, and to communicate with one another through spoken language. This section will provide an overview of the basic anatomy and function of the auditory system. It will include a discussion of how the sensory stimulus is translated into neural impulses, where in the brain that information is processed, how we perceive pitch, and how we know where sound is coming from.

Anatomy of the Auditory System

The ear can be separated into multiple sections. The outer ear includes the  pinna , which is the visible part of the ear that protrudes from our heads, the auditory canal, and the  tympanic membrane , or eardrum. The middle ear contains three tiny bones known as the  ossicles , which are named the  malleus  (or hammer),  incus  (or anvil), and the  stapes  (or stirrup). The inner ear contains the semi-circular canals, which are involved in balance and movement (the vestibular sense), and the cochlea. The  cochlea  is a fluid-filled, snail-shaped structure that contains the sensory receptor cells (hair cells) of the auditory system ( Figure 5.18 ).

An illustration shows sound waves entering the “auditory canal” and traveling to the inner ear. The locations of the “pinna,” “tympanic membrane (eardrum)” are labeled, as well as parts of the inner ear: the “ossicles” and its subparts, the “malleus,” “incus,” and “stapes.” A callout leads to a close-up illustration of the inner ear that shows the locations of the “semicircular canals,” “uticle,” “oval window,” “saccule,” “cochlea,” and the “basilar membrane and hair cells.”

Sound waves travel along the auditory canal and strike the tympanic membrane, causing it to vibrate. This vibration results in the movement of the three ossicles. As the ossicles move, the stapes presses into a thin membrane of the cochlea known as the oval window. As the stapes presses into the oval window, the fluid inside the cochlea begins to move, which in turn stimulates hair cells , which are auditory receptor cells of the inner ear embedded in the basilar membrane. The  basilar membrane  is a thin strip of tissue within the cochlea.

The activation of hair cells is a mechanical process: the stimulation of the hair cell ultimately leads to activation of the cell. As hair cells become activated, they generate neural impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. Auditory information is shuttled to the inferior colliculus, the medial geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, and finally to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain for processing. Like the visual system, there is also evidence suggesting that information about auditory recognition and localization is processed in parallel streams (Rauschecker & Tian, 2000; Renier et al., 2009).

Pitch Perception

Different frequencies of sound waves are associated with differences in our perception of the pitch of those sounds. Low-frequency sounds are lower-pitched, and high-frequency sounds are higher pitched. How does the auditory system differentiate among various pitches?

Several theories have been proposed to account for pitch perception. We’ll discuss two of them here: temporal theory and place theory. The  temporal theory  of pitch perception asserts that frequency is coded by the activity level of a sensory neuron. This would mean that a given hair cell would fire action potentials related to the frequency of the sound wave. While this is a very intuitive explanation, we detect such a broad range of frequencies (20–20,000 Hz) that the frequency of action potentials fired by hair cells cannot account for the entire range. Because of properties related to sodium channels on the neuronal membrane that are involved in action potentials, there is a point at which a cell cannot fire any faster (Shamma, 2001).

The  place theory of pitch perception suggests that different portions of the basilar membrane are sensitive to sounds of different frequencies. More specifically, the base of the basilar membrane responds best to high frequencies and the tip of the basilar membrane responds best to low frequencies. Therefore, hair cells that are in the base portion would be labeled as high-pitch receptors, while those in the tip of the basilar membrane would be labeled as low-pitch receptors (Shamma, 2001).

In reality, both theories explain different aspects of pitch perception. At frequencies up to about 4000 Hz, it is clear that both the rate of action potentials and place contribute to our perception of pitch. However, much higher frequency sounds can only be encoded using place cues (Shamma, 2001).

Sound Localization

The ability to locate sound in our environments is an important part of  hearing . Localizing sound could be considered similar to the way that we perceive depth in our visual fields. Like the monocular and binocular cues that provided information about depth, the auditory system uses both  monaural  (one-eared) and  binaural  (two-eared) cues to localize sound.

Each pinna interacts with incoming sound waves differently, depending on the sound’s source relative to our bodies. This interaction provides a monaural cue that is helpful in locating sounds that occur above or below and in front of or behind us. The sound waves received by your two ears from sounds that come from directly above, below, in front, or behind you would be identical; therefore, monaural cues are essential (Grothe, Pecka, & McAlpine, 2010).

Binaural cues, on the other hand, provide information on the location of a sound along a horizontal axis by relying on differences in patterns of vibration of the eardrum between our two ears. If a sound comes from an off-center location, it creates two types of binaural cues: interaural level differences and interaural timing differences.  Interaural level difference  refers to the fact that a sound coming from the right side of your body is more intense at your right ear than at your left ear because of the attenuation of the sound wave as it passes through your head.  Interaural timing difference  refers to the small difference in the time at which a given sound wave arrives at each ear ( Figure 5.19 ). Certain brain areas monitor these differences to construct where along a horizontal axis a sound originates (Grothe et al., 2010).

A photograph of jets has an illustration of arced waves labeled “sound” coming from the jets. These extend to an outline of a human head, with arrows from the jets identifying the location of each ear.

Hearing Loss

Deafness  is the partial or complete inability to hear. Some people are born without hearing, which is known as  congenital deafness . Other people suffer from  conductive hearing loss , which is due to a problem delivering sound energy to the cochlea. Causes for conductive hearing loss include blockage of the ear canal, a hole in the tympanic membrane, problems with the ossicles, or fluid in the space between the eardrum and cochlea. Another group of people suffer from sensorineural hearing loss, which is the most common form of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by many factors, such as aging, head or acoustic trauma, infections and diseases (such as measles or mumps), medications, environmental effects such as noise exposure (noise-induced hearing loss, as shown in  Figure 5.20 ), tumors, and toxins (such as those found in certain solvents and metals).

Photograph A shows Beyoncé performing at a concert. Photograph B shows a construction worker operating a jackhammer.

Given the mechanical nature by which the sound wave stimulus is transmitted from the eardrum through the ossicles to the oval window of the cochlea, some degree of hearing loss is inevitable. With conductive hearing loss, hearing problems are associated with a failure in the vibration of the eardrum and/or movement of the ossicles. These problems are often dealt with through devices like hearing aids that amplify incoming sound waves to make the vibration of the eardrum and movement of the ossicles more likely to occur.

When the hearing problem is associated with a failure to transmit neural signals from the cochlea to the brain, it is called  sensorineural hearing loss . One disease that results in sensorineural hearing loss is  Ménière’s disease . Although not well understood, Ménière’s disease results in a degeneration of inner ear structures that can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus (constant ringing or buzzing),  vertigo  (a sense of spinning), and an increase in pressure within the inner ear (Semaan & Megerian, 2011). This kind of loss cannot be treated with hearing aids, but some individuals might be candidates for a cochlear implant as a treatment option.  Cochlear implants  are electronic devices that consist of a microphone, a speech processor, and an electrode array. The device receives incoming sound information and directly stimulates the auditory nerve to transmit information to the brain.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Deaf Culture

In the United States and other places around the world, deaf people have their own language, schools, and customs. This is called  deaf culture . In the United States, deaf individuals often communicate using American Sign Language (ASL); ASL has no verbal component and is based entirely on visual signs and gestures. The primary mode of communication is signing. One of the values of deaf culture is to continue traditions like using sign language rather than teaching deaf children to try to speak, read lips, or have cochlear implant surgery.

When a child is diagnosed as deaf, parents have difficult decisions to make. Should the child be enrolled in mainstream schools and taught to verbalize and read lips? Or should the child be sent to a school for deaf children to learn ASL and have significant exposure to deaf culture? Do you think there might be differences in the way that parents approach these decisions depending on whether or not they are also deaf?

  • Describe the basic functions of the chemical senses
  • Explain the basic functions of the somatosensory, nociceptive, and thermoceptive sensory systems
  • Describe the basic functions of the vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic sensory systems

Vision and hearing have received an incredible amount of attention from researchers over the years. While there is still much to be learned about how these sensory systems work, we have a much better understanding of them than our other sensory modalities. In this section, we will explore our chemical senses (taste and smell) and our body senses (touch, temperature, pain, balance, and body position).

The Chemical Senses

Taste (gustation) and  smell  (olfaction) are called chemical senses because both have sensory receptors that respond to molecules in the food we eat or in the air we breathe. There is a pronounced interaction between our chemical senses. For example, when we describe the flavor of a given food, we are really referring to both gustatory and olfactory properties of the food working in combination.

Taste (Gustation)

You have learned since elementary school that there are four basic groupings of taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Research demonstrates, however, that we have at least six  taste  groupings. Umami is our fifth taste.  Umami  is actually a Japanese word that roughly translates to yummy, and it is associated with a taste for monosodium glutamate (Kinnamon & Vandenbeuch, 2009). There is also a growing body of experimental evidence suggesting that we possess a taste for the fatty content of a given food (Mizushige, Inoue, & Fushiki, 2007).

Molecules from the food and beverages we consume dissolve in our saliva and interact with taste receptors on our tongue and in our mouth and throat.  Taste buds  are formed by groupings of taste receptor cells with hair-like extensions that protrude into the central pore of the taste bud ( Figure 5.21 ). Taste buds have a life cycle of ten days to two weeks, so even destroying some by burning your tongue won’t have any long-term effect; they just grow right back. Taste molecules bind to receptors on this extension and cause chemical changes within the sensory cell that result in neural impulses being transmitted to the brain via different nerves, depending on where the receptor is located. Taste information is transmitted to the medulla, thalamus, and limbic system, and to the gustatory cortex, which is tucked underneath the overlap between the frontal and temporal lobes (Maffei, Haley, & Fontanini, 2012; Roper, 2013).

Illustration A shows a taste bud in an opening of the tongue, with the “tongue surface,” “taste pore,” “taste receptor cell” and “nerves” labeled. Part B is a micrograph showing taste buds on a human tongue.

Smell (Olfaction)

Olfactory receptor  cells are located in a mucous membrane at the top of the nose. Small hair-like extensions from these receptors serve as the sites for odor molecules dissolved in the mucus to interact with chemical receptors located on these extensions ( Figure 5.22 ). Once an odor molecule has bound a given receptor, chemical changes within the cell result in signals being sent to the  olfactory bulb : a bulb-like structure at the tip of the frontal lobe where the olfactory nerves begin. From the olfactory bulb, information is sent to regions of the limbic system and to the primary olfactory cortex, which is located very near the gustatory cortex (Lodovichi & Belluscio, 2012; Spors et al., 2013).

An illustration shows a side view of a human head and the location of the “nasal cavity,” “olfactory receptors,” and “olfactory bulb.”

There is tremendous variation in the sensitivity of the olfactory systems of different species. We often think of dogs as having far superior olfactory systems than our own, and indeed, dogs can do some remarkable things with their noses. There is some evidence to suggest that dogs can “smell” dangerous drops in blood glucose levels as well as cancerous tumors (Wells, 2010). Dogs’ extraordinary olfactory abilities may be due to the increased number of functional genes for olfactory receptors (between 800 and 1200), compared to the fewer than 400 observed in humans and other primates (Niimura & Nei, 2007).

Many species respond to chemical messages, known as  pheromones , sent by another individual (Wysocki & Preti, 2004). Pheromonal communication often involves providing information about the reproductive status of a potential mate. So, for example, when a female rat is ready to mate, she secretes pheromonal signals that draw attention from nearby male rats. Pheromonal activation is actually an important component in eliciting sexual behavior in the male rat (Furlow, 1996, 2012; Purvis & Haynes, 1972; Sachs, 1997). There has also been a good deal of research (and controversy) about pheromones in humans (Comfort, 1971; Russell, 1976; Wolfgang-Kimball, 1992; Weller, 1998).

Touch, Thermoception, and Nociception

A number of receptors are distributed throughout the skin to respond to various touch-related stimuli ( Figure 5.23 ). These receptors include Meissner’s corpuscles, Pacinian corpuscles, Merkel’s disks, and Ruffini corpuscles.  Meissner’s corpuscles  respond to pressure and lower frequency vibrations, and  Pacinian corpuscles  detect transient pressure and higher frequency vibrations.  Merkel’s disks  respond to light pressure, while  Ruffini corpuscles  detect stretch (Abraira & Ginty, 2013).

An illustration shows “skin surface” underneath which different receptors are identified: the “pacinian corpuscle,” “ruffini corpuscle,” “merkel’s disk,” and “meissner’s corpuscle.”

In addition to the receptors located in the skin, there are also a number of free nerve endings that serve sensory functions. These nerve endings respond to a variety of different types of touch-related stimuli and serve as sensory receptors for both  thermoception  (temperature perception) and  nociception (a signal indicating potential harm and maybe pain) (Garland, 2012; Petho & Reeh, 2012; Spray, 1986). Sensory information collected from the receptors and free nerve endings travels up the spinal cord and is transmitted to regions of the medulla, thalamus, and ultimately to the somatosensory cortex, which is located in the postcentral gyrus of the parietal lobe.

Pain Perception

Pain is an unpleasant experience that involves both physical and psychological components. Feeling pain is quite adaptive because it makes us aware of an injury, and it motivates us to remove ourselves from the cause of that injury. In addition, pain also makes us less likely to suffer additional injury because we will be gentler with our injured body parts.

Generally speaking, pain can be considered to be neuropathic or inflammatory in nature. Pain that signals some type of tissue damage is known as  inflammatory pain . In some situations, pain results from damage to neurons of either the peripheral or central nervous system. As a result, pain signals that are sent to the brain get exaggerated. This type of pain is known as  neuropathic pain . Multiple treatment options for pain relief range from relaxation therapy to the use of analgesic medications to deep brain stimulation. The most effective treatment option for a given individual will depend on a number of considerations, including the severity and persistence of the pain and any medical/psychological conditions.

Some individuals are born without the ability to feel pain. This very rare genetic disorder is known as  congenital insensitivity to pain  (or  congenital analgesia ). While those with congenital analgesia can detect differences in temperature and pressure, they cannot experience pain. As a result, they often suffer significant injuries. Young children have serious mouth and tongue injuries because they have bitten themselves repeatedly. Not surprisingly, individuals suffering from this disorder have much shorter life expectancies due to their injuries and secondary infections of injured sites (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013).

The Vestibular Sense, Proprioception, and Kinesthesia

The  vestibular sense  contributes to our ability to maintain balance and body posture. As  Figure 5.24 shows, the major sensory organs (utricle, saccule, and the three semicircular canals) of this system are located next to the cochlea in the inner ear. The vestibular organs are fluid-filled and have hair cells, similar to the ones found in the auditory system, which respond to the movement of the head and gravitational forces. When these hair cells are stimulated, they send signals to the brain via the vestibular nerve. Although we may not be consciously aware of our vestibular system’s sensory information under normal circumstances, its importance is apparent when we experience motion sickness and/or dizziness related to infections of the inner ear (Khan & Chang, 2013).

An illustration of the vestibular system shows the locations of the three canals (“posterior canal,” “horizontal canal,” and “superior canal”) and the locations of the “urticle,” “oval window,” “cochlea,” “basilar membrane and hair cells,” “saccule,” and “vestibule.”

In addition to maintaining balance, the vestibular system collects information critical for controlling movement and the reflexes that move various parts of our bodies to compensate for changes in body position. Therefore, both  proprioception  (perception of body position) and  kinesthesia  (perception of the body’s movement through space) interact with information provided by the vestibular system.

These sensory systems also gather information from receptors that respond to stretch and tension in muscles, joints, skin, and tendons (Lackner & DiZio, 2005; Proske, 2006; Proske & Gandevia, 2012). Proprioceptive and kinesthetic information travels to the brain via the spinal column. Several cortical regions in addition to the cerebellum receive information from and send information to the sensory organs of the proprioceptive and kinesthetic systems.

  • Explain the figure-ground relationship
  • Define Gestalt principles of grouping
  • Describe how perceptual set is influenced by an individual’s characteristics and mental state

In the early part of the 20th century, Max Wertheimer published a paper demonstrating that individuals perceived motion in rapidly flickering static images—an insight that came to him as he used a child’s toy tachistoscope. Wertheimer, and his assistants Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka, who later became his partners, believed that perception involved more than simply combining sensory stimuli. This belief led to a new movement within the field of psychology known as  Gestalt psychology . The word  gestalt  literally means form or pattern, but its use reflects the idea that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. In other words, the brain creates a perception that is more than simply the sum of available sensory inputs, and it does so in predictable ways. Gestalt psychologists translated these predictable ways into principles by which we organize sensory information. As a result, Gestalt psychology has been extremely influential in the area of sensation and perception (Rock & Palmer, 1990).

One Gestalt principle is the  figure-ground relationship . According to this principle, we tend to segment our visual world into figure and ground. Figure is the object or person that is the focus of the visual field, while the ground is the background. As  Figure 5.25  shows, our perception can vary tremendously, depending on what is perceived as figure and what is perceived as ground. Presumably, our ability to interpret sensory information depends on what we label as figure and what we label as ground in any particular case, although this assumption has been called into question (Peterson & Gibson, 1994; Vecera & O’Reilly, 1998).

An illustration shows two identical black face-like shapes that face towards one another, and one white vase-like shape that occupies all of the space in between them. Depending on which part of the illustration is focused on, either the black shapes or the white shape may appear to be the object of the illustration, leaving the other(s) perceived as negative space.

Another Gestalt principle for organizing sensory stimuli into meaningful perception is  proximity . This principle asserts that things that are close to one another tend to be grouped together, as  Figure 5.26  illustrates.

Illustration A shows thirty-six dots in six evenly-spaced rows and columns. Illustration B shows thirty-six dots in six evenly-spaced rows but with the columns separated into three sets of two columns.

How we read something provides another illustration of the proximity concept. For example, we read this sentence like this, notl iket hiso rt hat. We group the letters of a given word together because there are no spaces between the letters, and we perceive words because there are spaces between each word. Here are some more examples: Cany oum akes enseo ft hiss entence? What doth es e wor dsmea n?

We might also use the principle of  similarity  to group things in our visual fields. According to this principle, things that are alike tend to be grouped together ( Figure 5.27 ). For example, when watching a football game, we tend to group individuals based on the colors of their uniforms. When watching an offensive drive, we can get a sense of the two teams simply by grouping along this dimension.

An illustration shows six rows of six dots each. The rows of dots alternate between blue and white colored dots.

Two additional Gestalt principles are the law of  continuity  (or  good continuation ) and  closure . The law of continuity suggests that we are more likely to perceive continuous, smooth flowing lines rather than jagged, broken lines ( Figure 5.28 ). The  principle of closure  states that we organize our perceptions into complete objects rather than as a series of parts ( Figure 5.29 ).

An illustration shows two lines of diagonal dots that cross in the middle in the general shape of an “X.”

According to Gestalt theorists,  pattern perception , or our ability to discriminate among different figures and shapes, occurs by following the principles described above. You probably feel fairly certain that your perception accurately matches the real world, but this is not always the case. Our perceptions are based on  perceptual hypotheses : educated guesses that we make while interpreting sensory information. These hypotheses are informed by a number of factors, including our personalities, experiences, and expectations. We use these hypotheses to generate our perceptual set. For instance, research has demonstrated that those who are given verbal priming produce a biased interpretation of complex ambiguous figures (Goolkasian & Woodbury, 2010).

Case Study in Sensation and Perception

In 2011, the  New York Times  published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

Over time, it has become clear that while Krista and Tatiana share some sensory experiences and motor control, they remain two distinct individuals, which provides tremendous insight into researchers interested in the mind and the brain (Egnor, 2017).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a  clinical  or  case study  when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a tremendous amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole.  Generalizing  refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

Additional Supplemental Resources

  • Users can explore various aspects of motion detection.
  • Is seeing believing?  This page illustrates through several illusions that our visual perception cannot always be trusted.
  • The International Association for the Study of Pain brings together scientists, clinicians, health-care providers, and policymakers to stimulate and support the study of pain and translate that knowledge into improved pain relief worldwide.
  • Watch this video very closely it is a great example of change blindness and selective attention. Closed captioning available.
  • Description of a famous ambiguous figure. Closed captioning available.
  • Video footage of classic change blindness research. Closed captioning available.
  • Animated demonstration of a famous ambiguous figure.
  • How does color work? In this Ted-Ed video, you’ll learn about the properties of color, and how frequency plays a role in our perception of color.  A variety of discussion and assessment questions are included with the video (free registration is required to access the questions). Closed captioning available.
  • Watch this Ted-Ed video to learn more about the ways in which our eyes and brain are tricked by optical illusions.  What does this tell us about the inner-workings of our brains?  A variety of discussion and assessment questions are included with the video (free registration is required to access the questions). Closed captioning available.
  • How does the ear work? In this short video clip, you’ll learn about the inner workings of the human ear. Closed captioning available.

The mysterious science of pain – Joshua W. Pate  

  • Explore the biological and psychological factors that influence how we experience pain and how our nervous system reactions to harmful stimuli.  Joshua W. Pate investigates the experience of pain.
  • This video on the sensation and perception covers topics including absolute threshold, Weber’s Law, signal detection theory, and vision. Closed captioning available.
  • This video on the homunculus covers the senses of hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Closed captioning available.
  • This video on perceiving includes information on form perception, depth perception, and monocular cues. Closed captioning available.

Access for free at  https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/1-introduction

Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Julie Lazzara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Chapter 4: Sensation and Perception

Sensation and perception.

Sensation and perception are two separate processes that are very closely related. Sensation is input about the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors, and perception is the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations. In other words, senses are the physiological basis of perception. Perception of the same senses may vary from one person to another because each person’s brain interprets stimuli differently based on that individual’s learning, memory, emotions, and expectations.

Video 1. Sensation and Perception explains the differences between these two processes.

What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor, sensation has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as transduction .

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception).

The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold. Absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962).

Video 2.  Absolute Threshold of Sensation

It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called subliminal messages . A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: this is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: we receive it, but we are not consciously aware of it. Therefore, the message is sensed, but for whatever reason, it has not been selected for processing in working or short-term memory. Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs. Research evidence shows that in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013).

Dig Deeper: Unconscious Perception

Male professor with a graying beard writing on a whiteboard, wearing a sweater and glasses.

Figure 2 . Priming can be used to improve intellectual test performance. Research subjects primed with the stereotype of a professor – a sort of intellectual role model – outperformed those primed with an anti-intellectual stereotype. [Photo: Jeremy Wilburn]

Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the just noticeable difference (jnd) or difference threshold . Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message on her cell phone which caused her screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law : The difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus, as the example illustrates. It is the idea that bigger stimuli require larger differences to be noticed. For example, it will be much harder for your friend to reliably tell the difference between 10 and 11 lbs. (or 5 versus 5.5 kg) than it is for 1 and 2 lbs.

Video 3.  Weber’s Law and Thresholds 

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input. On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts. This is called top-down processing .

Video 4.  Bottom-up versus Top-down Processing.

Look at the shape in Figure 3 below. Seen alone, your brain engages in bottom-up processing. There are two thick vertical lines and three thin horizontal lines. There is no context to give it a specific meaning, so there is no top-down processing involved.

text or image of a thick vertical line and three thin horizontal lines, then another thick vertical line.

Figure 3 . What is this image? Without any context, you must use bottom-up processing.

Now, look at the same shape in two different contexts. Surrounded by sequential letters, your brain expects the shape to be a letter and to complete the sequence. In that context, you perceive the lines to form the shape of the letter “B.”

The letter A, then the same shape from before that now appears to be a B, then followed by the letter C.

Figure 4 . With top-down processing, you use context to give meaning to this image.

Surrounded by numbers, the same shape now looks like the number “13.”

The number 12, then the same shape from before that now appears to be a 13, then followed by the number 14.

Figure 5 . With top-down processing, you use context to give meaning to this image.

When given a context, your perception is driven by your cognitive expectations. Now you are processing the shape in a top-down fashion.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as sensory adaptation . Imagine entering a classroom with an old analog clock. Upon first entering the room, you can hear the ticking of the clock; as you begin to engage in conversation with classmates or listen to your professor greet the class, you are no longer aware of the ticking. The clock is still ticking, and that information is still affecting sensory receptors of the auditory system. The fact that you no longer perceive the sound demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

Attention and Perception

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

One experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon of inattentional blindness  asked participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other color. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one-third of subjects did not notice it (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

Link to Learning

Video 5.  Test your perceptual abilities.

A photograph shows a person staring at a screen that displays one red cross toward the left side and numerous black and white shapes all over.

Figure 6 . Nearly one third of participants in a study did not notice that a red cross passed on the screen because their attention was focused on the black or white figures. (credit: Cory Zanker)

Motivations, Expectations, and Perception

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise. The ability to identify a stimulus when it is embedded in a distracting background is called signal detection theory . This might also explain why a mother is awakened by a quiet murmur from her baby but not by other sounds that occur while she is asleep. Signal detection theory has practical applications, such as increasing air traffic controller accuracy. Controllers need to be able to detect planes among many signals (blips) that appear on the radar screen and follow those planes as they move through the sky. In fact, the original work of the researcher who developed signal detection theory was focused on improving the sensitivity of air traffic controllers to plane blips (Swets, 1964).

Video 6.   Signal Detection Theory. 

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this module, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western cultures were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the Müller-Lyer illusion: the lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

Two vertical lines are shown on the left in (a). They each have V–shaped brackets on their ends, but one line has the brackets angled toward its center, and the other has the brackets angled away from its center. The lines are the same length, but the second line appears longer due to the orientation of the brackets on its endpoints. To the right of these lines is a two-dimensional drawing of walls meeting at 90-degree angles. Within this drawing are 2 lines which are the same length, but appear different lengths. Because one line is bordering a window on a wall that has the appearance of being farther away from the perspective of the viewer, it appears shorter than the other line which marks the 90 degree angle where the facing wall appears closer to the viewer’s perspective point.

Figure 7 . In the Müller-Lyer illusion, lines appear to be different lengths although they are identical. (a) Arrows at the ends of lines may make the line on the right appear longer, although the lines are the same length. (b) When applied to a three-dimensional image, the line on the right again may appear longer although both black lines are the same length.

These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odor and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998).

Children described as thrill-seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavors (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced-fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

Think It Over

Think about a time when you failed to notice something around you because your attention was focused elsewhere. If someone pointed it out, were you surprised that you hadn’t noticed it right away?

  • North, A & Hargreaves, David & McKendrick, Jennifer. (1999). The Influence of In-Store Music on Wine Selections. Journal of Applied Psychology. 84. 271-276. 10.1037/0021-9010.84.2.271. ↵
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  • Sensation and Perception, last example on Weber's Law. Authored by : Adam John Privitera. Provided by : Chemeketa Community College. Located at : http://nobaproject.com/modules/sensation-and-perception . Project : The Noba Project. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
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5.1 Sensation versus Perception

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between sensation and perception
  • Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold
  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

   What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor, sensation has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as transduction . Transduction represents the first step toward perception and is a translation process where different types of cells react to stimuli creating a signal processed by the central nervous system resulting in what we experience as a sensations. Sensations allow organisms to sense a face, and smell smoke when there is a fire.

Perceptions on the other hand, require organizing and understanding the incoming sensation information. In order for sensations to be useful, we must first add meaning to those sensations, which create our perceptions of those sensations. Sensations allow us to see a red burner, but perceptions entail the understanding and representation of the characteristic hot. Also, a sensation would be hearing a loud, shrill tone, whereas a perception would be the classification and understanding of that sounds as a fire alarm. Throughout this chapter sensations and perceptions will be discussed as separate events, whereas in reality, sensations and perceptions can be more accurately thought of as occurring along a continued where boundaries are more fluent between where a sensation ends and a perception begins.

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is extremely oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception), and each one of these sensory systems has different receptors tuned to transduce different stimuli. The vision system absorbs light using rod and cone receptors located at the back of the eyes, sound is translated via tiny hair like receptors known as cilia inside the inner ear, smell and taste work together most of the time to absorb chemicals found in airborne particles and food via chemically sensitive cilia in the nasal cavity and clusters of chemical receptors on the tongue. Touch is particularly interesting because it is made up of responses from many different types of receptors found within the skin that send signals to the central nervous system in response to temperature, pressure, vibration, and disruption of the skin such as stretching and tearing.

sensation and perception psychology essay

Free nerve endings embedded in the skin that allow humans to perceive the various differences in our immediate environment. Adapted from Pinel, 2009.

   The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold. Absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962). Additionally, one teaspoon of sugar can be tasted within two gallons of water, and the human olfactory system can detect the scent of one drop of perfume throughout a six room apartment.

It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called subliminal messages. A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: This is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: The message is processed, but we are not consciously aware of it. Over the years, there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs to influence consumer behavior. Research has demonstrated in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013). Studies attempting to influence movie goers to purchase more popcorn, and reduced smoking habits demonstrated little to no success further suggesting subliminal messages are mostly ineffective in producing specific behavior (Karremans, Stroebe & Claus, 2006). However, neuroimaging studies have demonstrated clear neural activity related to the processing of subliminal stimuli stimuli (Koudier & Dehaene, 2007). Additionally, Krosnick, Betz, Jussim & Lynn (1992) found that participants who were presented images of dead bodies or buckets of snakes for several milliseconds (subliminal priming), were more likely to rate a neutral image of a woman with a neutral facial expression as more unlikable compared to participants who were shown more pleasant images (kittens and bridal couples). This demonstrates that although we may not be aware of the stimuli presented to us, we are processing it on a neural level, and also that although subliminal priming usually is not strong enough to force unwanted purchases, it may influence our perceptions of things we encounter in the environment following the subliminal priming.

Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the just noticeable difference (JND, mentioned briefly in the above study comparing color perceptions of Chinese and Dutch participants) or difference threshold. Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message on her cell phone which caused her screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law.

Webers Law : Each of the various senses has its own constant ratios determining difference thresholds.

Webers ideas about difference thresholds influenced concepts of signal detection theory which state that our abilities to detect a stimulus depends on sensory factors (like the intensity of the stimulus, or the presences of other stimuli being processed) as well as our psychological state (you are sleepy because you stayed up studying the previous night). Human factors engineers who design control consoles for planes and cars use signal detection theory all the time in order to asses situations pilots or drivers may experience such as difficulty in seeing and interpreting controls on extremely bright days.

“ Although are perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception .”

   While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input, stimuli from the environment. On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts related to the stimuli we are experiencing. This is called top-down processing.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.” Sensation is a signal from any of our six senses. Perception is the brain’s response to these signals. When we see our professor speaking in the front of the room, we sense the visual and auditory signals coming from them and we perceive that they are giving a lecture about our psychology class.

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as sensory adaptation. Imagine entering a classroom with an old analog clock. Upon first entering the room, you can hear the ticking of the clock; as you begin to engage in conversation with classmates or listen to your professor greet the class, you are no longer aware of the ticking. The clock is still ticking, and that information is still affecting sensory receptors of the auditory system. The fact that you no longer perceive the sound demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different. Additionally, when you walk into a dark movie theater after being outside on a bright day you will notice it is initially extremely difficult to see. After a couple minutes you experience what is known as dark adaptation which tends to take about 8 minutes for cones (visual acuity and color), and about 30 minutes for the cones in your retina to adapt (light, dark, depth and distance) (Hecht & Mendelbaum, 1938; Klaver, Wolfs, Vingerling, Hoffman, & de Jong, 1998). If you are wondering why it takes so long to adapt to darkness, in order to change the sensitivity of rods and cones, they must first undergo a complex chemical change associated with protein molecules which does not happen immediately. Now that you have adapted to the darkens of the theater, you have survived marathon watching the entire Lord of the Rings series, and you are emerging from the theater a seemly short ten hours after entering the theater, you may experience the process of light adaptation, barring it is still light outside. During light adaptation, the pupils constrict to reduce the amount of light flooding onto the retina and sensitivity to light is reduced for both rods and cones which takes usually less than 10 minutes (Ludel, 1978). So why is the process of raising sensitivity to light to adapt to darkness more complex than lowering sensitivity to adapt to light? Caruso (2007) has suggested that a more gradual process is involved in darkness adaptation due to humans tendency over the course of evolution to slowly adjust to darkness as the sun sets over the horizon.

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

   One of the most interesting demonstrations of how important attention is in determining our perception of the environment occurred in a famous study conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999). In this study, participants watched a video of people dressed in black and white passing basketballs. Participants were asked to count the number of times the team in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla costume walks among the two teams. You would think that someone would notice the gorilla, right? Nearly half of the people who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all, despite the fact that he was clearly visible for nine seconds. Because participants were so focused on the number of times the white team was passing the ball, they completely tuned out other visual information. Failure to notice something that is completely visible because of a lack of attention is called inattentional blindness. More recent work evaluated inattention blindness related to cellphone use. Hyman, Boss, Wise, McKenzie & Caggiano (2010) classified participants based on whether they were walking while talking on their cell phone, listening to an MP3 player, walking without any electronics or walking as a pair. Participants were not aware that while they walked through the square a unicycling clown would ride right in front of them. After the students reached the outside of the square they were stopped and asked if they noticed the unicycling clown that rode in front of them. Cell phone users were found to walk more slowly, change directions more often, pay less attention to others around them and were also the most frequent group to report they did not noticed the unicycling clown. David Strayer and Frank Drews additionally examined cell phone use in a series of driving simulators and found that even when participants looked directly at the objects in the driving environment, they were less likely to create a durable memory of those objects if they were talking on a cell phone. This pattern was obtained for objects of both high and low relevance for their driving safety suggesting little meaningful cognitive analysis of objects in the driving environment outside the restricted focus of attention while maintaining a cell phone conversation. Additionally, in-vehicle conversations did not interfere with driving as much as cell phone conversations as Strayer and Drews suggest, drivers are better able to synchronize the processing demands of driving with in-vehicle conversations compared to cell-phone conversations. Overall it is apparent that directing the focus of our attention can lead to sometimes serious impairments of other information, and it appears cell phones can have a particularly dramatic impact on information processing while performing other tasks.

In a similar experiment to the activity above, researchers tested inattentional blindness by asking participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other color. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one third of subjects did not notice it (figure below) (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

Nearly one third of participants in a study did not notice that a red cross passed on the screen because their attention was focused on the black or white figures. (credit: Cory Zanker)

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise. This motivational aspect of expectation in conversation additionally may be why such strong inattentional blindness has been found in relation to cell phone use. The ability to identify a stimulus when it is embedded in a distracting background is called signal detection theory .

Signal detection theory:  A theory explaining explaining how various factors influence our ability to detect weak signals in our environment.

Signal detection theory also explains why a mother is awakened by a quiet murmur from her baby but not by other sounds that occur while she is asleep. This also applies to air traffic controller communication, pilot and driver control panels as discussed previously, and even the monitoring of patient vital information while a surgeon performs surgery. In the case of air traffic controllers, the controllers need to be able to detect planes among many signals (blips) that appear on the radar screen and follow those planes as they move through the sky. In fact, the original work of the researcher who developed signal detection theory was focused on improving the sensitivity of air traffic controllers to plane blips (Swets, 1964).

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this chapter, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western cultures were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the Müller-Lyer illusion (figure below): The lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

In the Müller-Lyer illusion, lines appear to be different lengths although they are identical. (a) Arrows at the ends of lines may make the line on the right appear longer, although the lines are the same length. (b) When applied to a three-dimensional image, the line on the right again may appear longer although both black lines are the same length.

   These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odor, and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998). In terms of color vision across cultures, research has found derived color terms for brown, orange and pink hues do appear to be influenced by cultural differences (Zollinger, 1988).

Children described as thrill seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavors (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

   Sensation occurs when sensory receptors detect sensory stimuli. Perception involves the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of those sensations. All sensory systems have both absolute and difference thresholds, which refer to the minimum amount of stimulus energy or the minimum amount of difference in stimulus energy required to be detected about 50% of the time, respectively. Sensory adaptation, selective attention, and signal detection theory can help explain what is perceived and what is not. In addition, our perceptions are affected by a number of factors, including beliefs, values, prejudices, culture, and life experiences.

References:

Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology

Review Questions:

1. ________ refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy required to be detected 50% of the time.

a. absolute threshold

b. difference threshold

c. just noticeable difference

d. transduction

2. Decreased sensitivity to an unchanging stimulus is known as ________.

a. transduction

c. sensory adaptation

d. inattentional blindness

3. ________ involves the conversion of sensory stimulus energy into neural impulses.

a. sensory adaptation

b. inattentional blindness

c. difference threshold

4. ________ occurs when sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced.

a. sensation

b. perception

c. transduction

d. sensory adaptation

Critical Thinking Question:

1. Not everything that is sensed is perceived. Do you think there could ever be a case where something could be perceived without being sensed?

2. Please generate a novel example of how just noticeable difference can change as a function of stimulus intensity.

Personal Application Question :

1. Think about a time when you failed to notice something around you because your attention was focused elsewhere. If someone pointed it out, were you surprised that you hadn’t noticed it right away?

absolute threshold

bottom-up processing

inattentional blindness

just noticeable difference

sensory adaptation

signal detection theory

subliminal message

top-down processing

transduction

Answers to Exercises

1. This would be a good time for students to think about claims of extrasensory perception. Another interesting topic would be the phantom limb phenomenon experienced by amputees.

2. There are many potential examples. One example involves the detection of weight differences. If two people are holding standard envelopes and one contains a quarter while the other is empty, the difference in weight between the two is easy to detect. However, if those envelopes are placed inside two textbooks of equal weight, the ability to discriminate which is heavier is much more difficult.

absolute threshold:  minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time

bottom-up processing:  system in which perceptions are built from sensory input

inattentional blindness:  failure to notice something that is completely visible because of a lack of attention

just noticeable difference:  difference in stimuli required to detect a difference between the stimuli

perception:  way that sensory information is interpreted and consciously experienced

sensation:  what happens when sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor

sensory adaptation:  not perceiving stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time

signal detection theory:  change in stimulus detection as a function of current mental state

subliminal message:  message presented below the threshold of conscious awareness

top-down processing:  interpretation of sensations is influenced by available knowledge, experiences, and thoughts

transduction:  conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential

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What is Sensation?

Learning objectives.

  • Define sensation and explain its connection to the concepts of absolute threshold, difference threshold, and subliminal messages

What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor, sensation has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as transduction .

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception).

small candlelight with black background.

The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold. Absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962).

It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called subliminal messages . A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: this is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: we receive it, but we are not consciously aware of it. Therefore, the message is sensed, but for whatever reason, it has not been selected for processing in working or short-term memory. Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs. Research evidence shows that in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013).

DIG DEEPER: NONCONCIOUS PERCEPTION

[note that the term “conscious” generally refers to processing that occurs when we are awake. “nonconscious” processing also occurs while awake, but below the level of awareness. this is similar to “unconscious” processing, which also occurs below the awareness threshold, but is more often used to describe those who are also not awake, as in, “she was unconscious after the car crash.” the terms nonconscious and unconscious are sometimes used interchangeably, however.].

Male professor with a graying beard writing on a whiteboard, wearing a sweater and glasses.

Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the just noticeable difference (jnd) or difference threshold . Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message on her cell phone which caused her screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law : The difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus, as the example illustrates. It is the idea that bigger stimuli require larger differences to be noticed. For example, it will be much harder for your friend to reliably tell the difference between 10 and 11 lbs. (or 5 versus 5.5 kg) than it is for 1 and 2 lbs.

Review Questions

Attributions

Dig Deeper. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License:  CC BY: Attribution

Details on nonconsciousness. Authored by: Cynthia Golledge. Provided by: Portland Community College. License:  CC BY: Attribution

Sensation versus Perception . Authored by: OpenStax College.  License:  CC BY: Attribution .

Dig Deeper on the Unconscious and image . Authored by: Ap Dijksterhuis Radboud. Provided by: University Nijmegen.  License:  CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Sensation and Perception, last example on Weber’s Law . Authored by: Adam John Privitera . Provided by: Chemeketa Community College.  License:  CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Candle in the dark . Authored by: pratanti.  License:  CC BY: Attribution

what happens when sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor

conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential

  minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time

message presented below the threshold of conscious awareness

difference in stimuli required to detect a difference between the stimuli

Ernst Weber’s discovery that the difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus and bigger stimuli require larger differences to be noticed

What is Sensation? Copyright © by Utah Tech University Psychology Department is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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8. Sensation and Perception

Sensation vs. Perception

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between sensation and perception
  • Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold
  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor, sensation has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as transduction.

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception).

The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold. Absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962).

It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called subliminal messages. A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: This is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: We receive it, but we are not consciously aware of it. Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs. Research evidence shows that in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013).

Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the just noticeable difference (jnd) or difference threshold. Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message on her cell phone which caused her screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law: The difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus, as the example illustrates.

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input. On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts. This is called top-down processing.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as sensory adaptation. Imagine entering a classroom with an old analog clock. Upon first entering the room, you can hear the ticking of the clock; as you begin to engage in conversation with classmates or listen to your professor greet the class, you are no longer aware of the ticking. The clock is still ticking, and that information is still affecting sensory receptors of the auditory system. The fact that you no longer perceive the sound demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

One of the most interesting demonstrations of how important attention is in determining our perception of the environment occurred in a famous study conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999). In this study, participants watched a video of people dressed in black and white passing basketballs. Participants were asked to count the number of times the team in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla costume walks among the two teams. You would think that someone would notice the gorilla, right? Nearly half of the people who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all, despite the fact that he was clearly visible for nine seconds. Because participants were so focused on the number of times the white team was passing the ball, they completely tuned out other visual information. Failure to notice something that is completely visible because of a lack of attention is called inattentional blindness.

In a similar experiment, researchers tested inattentional blindness by asking participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other color. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one third of subjects did not notice it (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

A photograph shows a person staring at a screen that displays one red cross toward the left side and numerous black and white shapes all over.

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise. The ability to identify a stimulus when it is embedded in a distracting background is called signal detection theory. This might also explain why a mother is awakened by a quiet murmur from her baby but not by other sounds that occur while she is asleep. Signal detection theory has practical applications, such as increasing air traffic controller accuracy. Controllers need to be able to detect planes among many signals (blips) that appear on the radar screen and follow those planes as they move through the sky. In fact, the original work of the researcher who developed signal detection theory was focused on improving the sensitivity of air traffic controllers to plane blips (Swets, 1964).

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this chapter, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western cultures were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the Müller-Lyer illusion: The lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

Two vertical lines are shown on the left in (a). They each have V–shaped brackets on their ends, but one line has the brackets angled toward its center, and the other has the brackets angled away from its center. The lines are the same length, but the second line appears longer due to the orientation of the brackets on its endpoints. To the right of these lines is a two-dimensional drawing of walls meeting at 90-degree angles. Within this drawing are 2 lines which are the same length, but appear different lengths. Because one line is bordering a window on a wall that has the appearance of being farther away from the perspective of the viewer, it appears shorter than the other line which marks the 90 degree angle where the facing wall appears closer to the viewer’s perspective point.

These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odor, and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998).

Children described as thrill seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavors (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

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Watch this video in which Beau Lotto uses optical illusions to demonstrate how evolution tints your perception of what’s really out there:

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8.1: Sensation vs Perception

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Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between sensation and perception
  • Distinguish between top-down and bottom-up contributions to perception
  • Describe key principles, such as transduction and sensory adaptation

Brief Overview:

The topics of sensation and perception are among the oldest and most important in all of psychology. People are equipped with senses such as sight, hearing and taste that help us to take in the world around us. Amazingly, our senses have the ability to convert real-world information into electrical information that can be processed by the brain. The way we interpret this information-- our perceptions-- is what leads to our experiences of the world. In this module, you will learn about the biological processes of sensation and perceptions as well as key differences between these two processes.

Sensation and perception are often intertwined, however, there are important distinctions between the two. The physical process during which our sensory organs—those involved with vision and hearing, for example—respond to external stimuli is called sensation . Sensation happens when you taste noodles or feel the wind on your face or hear a car horn honking in the distance. During sensation, our sense organs are engaging in transduction , the conversion of one form of energy into another. Physical energy such as light or sound is converted into a form of energy the brain can understand: electrical stimulation (i.e. action potentials). After our brain receives the electrical signals, we make sense of all this stimulation and begin to appreciate the complex world around us. This psychological process—making sense of the stimuli—is called perception . It is during this process that you are able to identify a gas leak in your home or a song that reminds you of a specific afternoon spent with friends.

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to the fact that perceptions are built from sensory input, your eyes are not the only way to use bottom-up processing. Imagine you are in the forest walking and you are admiring the trees and nature around. As you continue to walk you hear crackling noises and you begin to smell burning wood. As you continue walking you hear people talking and the crackling and smell of burning wood becomes stronger, at some point you may realize you are entering campgrounds, you can't see the campgrounds but bottom-up processing with the help of your other senses tells you what is going on.

On the other hand, how we interpret those sensations is influenced by our available knowledge, our experiences, and our thoughts. This is called top-down processing. One way to illustrate these two concepts is with our ability to read. Read the following quote pictured in Figure 8.1.1 out loud:

The words in the triangle read, "I love Paris in the the spring." The repeated word "the" appears on two separate lines within the triangle.

Did you notice anything odd while you were reading the text in the triangle? Did you notice the second “the”? If not, it’s likely because you were reading this from a top-down approach. Having a second “the” doesn’t make sense. We know this. Our brain knows this and doesn’t expect there to be a second one, so we have a tendency to skip right over it. In other words, your past experience has changed the way you perceive the writing in the triangle! A beginning reader—one who is using a bottom-up approach by carefully attending to each piece—would be less likely to make this error. The above demonstration illustrates how our experiences can influence the way our brain processes sensory information.

Another way to distinguish between perception and sensation is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the sensation is the scent receptors detecting the odor of cinnamon, but the perception may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.” Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time, which is known as sensory adaptation. Imagine entering a classroom with an old analog clock. Upon first entering the room, you can hear the ticking of the clock; as you begin to engage in conversation with classmates or listen to your professor greet the class, you are no longer aware of the ticking. The clock is still ticking, and that information is still affecting sensory receptors of the auditory system. The fact that you no longer perceive the sound demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

When we experience a sensory stimulus that doesn’t change, we stop paying attention to it. This is why we don’t feel the weight of our clothing, hear the hum of a projector in a lecture hall, or see all the tiny scratches on the lenses of our glasses. Thus, when a stimulus is constant and unchanging, we experience sensory adaptation. This occurs because if a stimulus does not change, our brain quits responding to it. A great example of this occurs when we leave the radio on in our car after we park it at home for the night. When we listen to the radio on our way home, the volume seems reasonable. However, the next morning when we start the car, we might be startled by how loud the radio is. We don’t remember it being that loud last night. What happened? We adapted to the constant stimulus (the radio volume) over the course of the previous day and increased the volume at various times.

Attribution

  • Sensation and Perception sections adapted by Isaias Hernandez from "NOBA-Vision"; https://nobaproject.com/modules/sensation-and-perception
  • Vision sections adapted by Isaias Hernandez from "Sensation vs Perception"; https://www.oercommons.org/courses/i...erception/view
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25 Sensation vs. Perception

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between sensation and perception
  • Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold
  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurones that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor,   sensation  has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you learned when studying biopsychology), to the central nervous system. The conversion from sensory stimulus energy to action potential is known as  transduction .

You have probably known since elementary school that we have five senses: vision, hearing (audition), smell (olfaction), taste (gustation), and touch (somatosensation). It turns out that this notion of five senses is oversimplified. We also have sensory systems that provide information about balance (the vestibular sense), body position and movement (proprioception and kinesthesia), pain (nociception), and temperature (thermoception).

Psychophysics is the branch of psychology that studies the effects of physical stimuli on sensory perceptions and mental states. The field of psychophysics was founded by the German psychologist Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), who was the first to study the relationship between the strength of a stimulus and a person’s ability to detect the stimulus.

The measurement techniques developed by Fechner and his colleagues are designed in part to help determine the limits of human sensation. One important criterion is the ability to detect very faint stimuli. The absolute threshold of a sensation is defined as the intensity of a stimulus that allows an organism to just barely detect it. In a typical psychophysics experiment, an individual is presented with a series of trials in which a signal is sometimes presented and sometimes not, or in which two stimuli are presented that are either the same or different. Imagine, for instance, that you were asked to take a hearing test. On each of the trials your task is to indicate either “yes” if you heard a sound or “no” if you did not. The signals are purposefully made to be very faint, making accurate judgments difficult.

The problem for you is that the very faint signals create uncertainty. Because our ears are constantly sending background information to the brain, you will sometimes think that you heard a sound when none was there, and you will sometimes fail to detect a sound that is there. Your task is to determine whether the neural activity that you are experiencing is due to the background noise alone or is the result of a signal within the noise. The responses that you give on the hearing test can be analyzed using signal detection analysis. Signal detection analysis is a technique used to determine the ability of the perceiver to separate true signals from background noise (Macmillan & Creelman, 2005; Wickens, 2002). As you can see in Figure SAP.2, “Outcomes of a Signal Detection Analysis,” each judgment trial creates four possible outcomes: A hit occurs when you, as the listener, correctly say “yes” when there was a sound. A false alarm occurs when you respond “yes” to no signal. In the other two cases you respond “no” — either a miss (saying “no” when there was a signal) or a correct rejection (saying “no” when there was in fact no signal).

A 2x2 table presenting the outcomes of a signal detection analysis. The title of the top x-axis says "Perceiver's response" and the left y-axis says "Stimulus". The words "Yes" and "No" correspond to the top columns, and the words "Present' and "Absent" for the rows. Stimulus Present is a Hit if it is under the perceiver response "Yes" and a Miss if the perceiver's response is "No". The Stimulus Absent corresponds to a false alarm if the perceiver's response is "Yes" and a correct rejection if the perceiver's response is "No"

The analysis of the data from a psychophysics experiment creates two measures. One measure, known as sensitivity , refers to the true ability of the individual to detect the presence or absence of signals. People who have better hearing will have higher sensitivity than will those with poorer hearing. The other measure, response bias , refers to a behavioural tendency to respond “yes” to the trials, which is independent of sensitivity.

Imagine, for instance, that rather than taking a hearing test, you are a soldier on guard duty, and your job is to detect the very faint sound of the breaking of a branch that indicates that an enemy is nearby. You can see that in this case making a false alarm by alerting the other soldiers to the sound might not be as costly as a miss (a failure to report the sound), which could be deadly. Therefore, you might well adopt a very lenient response bias in which whenever you are at all unsure, you send a warning signal. In this case your responses may not be very accurate (your sensitivity may be low because you are making a lot of false alarms) and yet the extreme response bias can save lives.

Another application of signal detection occurs when medical technicians study body images for the presence of cancerous tumours. Again, a miss (in which the technician incorrectly determines that there is no tumour) can be very costly, but false alarms (referring patients who do not have tumours to further testing) also have costs. The ultimate decisions that the technicians make are based on the quality of the signal (clarity of the image), their experience and training (the ability to recognize certain shapes and textures of tumours), and their best guesses about the relative costs of misses versus false alarms.

Although we have focused to this point on the absolute threshold, a second important criterion concerns the ability to assess differences between stimuli. The difference threshold (or just noticeable difference [JND]), refers to the change in a stimulus that can just barely be detected by the organism. The German physiologist Ernst Weber (1795-1878) made an important discovery about the JND — namely, that the ability to detect differences depends not so much on the size of the difference but on the size of the difference in relation to the absolute size of the stimulus. Weber’s law maintains that the just noticeable difference of a stimulus is a constant proportion of the original intensity of the stimulus. As an example, if you have a cup of coffee that has only a very little bit of sugar in it (say one teaspoon), adding another teaspoon of sugar will make a big difference in taste. But if you added that same teaspoon to a cup of coffee that already had five teaspoons of sugar in it, then you probably wouldn’t taste the difference as much (in fact, according to Weber’s law, you would have to add five more teaspoons to make the same difference in taste).

One interesting application of Weber’s law is in our everyday shopping behaviour. Our tendency to perceive cost differences between products is dependent not only on the amount of money we will spend or save, but also on the amount of money saved relative to the price of the purchase. For example, if you were about to buy a soda or candy bar in a convenience store, and the price of the items ranged from $1 to $3, you would likely think that the $3 item cost “a lot more” than the $1 item. But now imagine that you were comparing between two music systems, one that cost $397 and one that cost $399. Probably you would think that the cost of the two systems was “about the same,” even though buying the cheaper one would still save you $2.

Research Focus: Influence without Awareness

If you study Figure SAP.3, “Absolute Threshold,” you will see that the absolute threshold is the point where we become aware of a faint stimulus. After that point, we say that the stimulus is conscious because we can accurately report on its existence (or its nonexistence) more than 50% of the time. But can subliminal stimuli (events that occur below the absolute threshold and of which we are not conscious) have an influence on our behaviour?

A graph showing a mockup of the absolute threshold. As the intensity of stimulus increases on the X-axis , the percentage of correct detections increases on the Y-axis on an S-shaped curve. Data below the Absolute Threshold point on the X-axis corresponds to data below the 50% point of correct detections, and is labeled subliminal stimuli

A variety of research programs have found that subliminal stimuli can influence our judgments and behaviour, at least in the short term (Dijksterhuis, 2010). But whether the presentation of subliminal stimuli can influence the products that we buy has been a more controversial topic in psychology. In one relevant experiment, Karremans, Stroebe, and Claus (2006) had Dutch college students view a series of computer trials in which a string of letters such as BBBBBBBBB or BBBbBBBBB were presented on the screen. To be sure they paid attention to the display, the students were asked to note whether the strings contained a small b. However, immediately before each of the letter strings, the researchers presented either the name of a drink that is popular in Holland (Lipton Ice) or a control string containing the same letters as Lipton Ice (NpeicTol). These words were presented so quickly (for only about one-fiftieth of a second) that the participants could not see them.

Then the students were asked to indicate their intention to drink Lipton Ice by answering questions such as “If you would sit on a terrace now, how likely is it that you would order Lipton Ice,” and also to indicate how thirsty they were at the time. The researchers found that the students who had been exposed to the “Lipton Ice” words (and particularly those who indicated that they were already thirsty) were significantly more likely to say that they would drink Lipton Ice than were those who had been exposed to the control words.

If they were effective, procedures such as this (we can call the technique “subliminal advertising” because it advertises a product outside awareness) would have some major advantages for advertisers, because it would allow them to promote their products without directly interrupting the consumers’ activity and without the consumers’ knowing they are being persuaded. People cannot argue with, or attempt to avoid being influenced by, messages received outside awareness. Due to fears that people may be influenced without their knowing, subliminal advertising has been banned in many countries, including Australia, Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and Russia.

Although it has been proven to work in some research, subliminal advertising’s effectiveness is still uncertain. Charles Trappey (1996) conducted a meta-analysis in which he combined 23 leading research studies that had tested the influence of subliminal advertising on consumer choice. The results showed that subliminal advertising had a negligible effect on consumer choice. Saegert (1987, p. 107) concluded that “marketing should quit giving subliminal advertising the benefit of the doubt,” arguing that the influences of subliminal stimuli are usually so weak that they are normally overshadowed by the person’s own decision making about the behaviour.

Taken together then, the evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal advertising is weak, and its effects may be limited to only some people and in only some conditions. You probably don’t have to worry too much about being subliminally persuaded in your everyday life, even if subliminal ads are allowed in your country. But even if subliminal advertising is not all that effective itself, there are plenty of other indirect advertising techniques that are used and that do work. For instance, many ads for automobiles and alcoholic beverages are subtly sexualized, which encourages the consumer to indirectly (even if not subliminally) associate these products with sexuality. And there is the ever more frequent “product placement” technique, where images of brands (cars, sodas, electronics, and so forth) are placed on websites and in popular television shows and movies. Harris, Bargh, & Brownell (2009) found that being exposed to food advertising on television significantly increased child and adult snacking behaviours, again suggesting that the effects of perceived images, even if presented above the absolute threshold, may nevertheless be very subtle.

Another example of processing that occurs outside our awareness is seen when certain areas of the visual cortex are damaged, causing blindsight , a condition in which people are unable to consciously report on visual stimuli but nevertheless are able to accurately answer questions about what they are seeing. When people with blindsight are asked directly what stimuli look like, or to determine whether these stimuli are present at all, they cannot do so at better than chance levels. They report that they cannot see anything. However, when they are asked more indirect questions, they are able to give correct answers. For example, people with blindsight are able to correctly determine an object’s location and direction of movement, as well as identify simple geometrical forms and patterns (Weiskrantz, 1997). It seems that although conscious reports of the visual experiences are not possible, there is still a parallel and implicit process at work, enabling people to perceive certain aspects of the stimuli.

While our sensory receptors are constantly collecting information from the environment, it is ultimately how we interpret that information that affects how we interact with the world.  Perception   refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing.  Bottom-up processing   refers to sensory information from a stimulus in the environment driving a process, and   top-down processing  refers to knowledge and expectancy driving a process, as shown in  Figure SAP.4  (Egeth & Yantis, 1997; Fine & Minnery, 2009; Yantis & Egeth, 1999).

The figure includes two vertical arrows. The first arrow comes from the word “Top” and points downward to the word “Down.” The explanation reads, “Top-down processing occurs when previous experience and expectations are first used to recognize stimuli.” The second arrow comes from the word “bottom” and points upward to the word “up.” The explanation reads, “Bottom-up processing occurs when we sense basic features of stimuli and then integrate them.”

Imagine that you and some friends are sitting in a crowded restaurant eating lunch and talking. It is very noisy, and you are concentrating on your friend’s face to hear what she is saying, then the sound of breaking glass and clang of metal pans hitting the floor rings out. The server dropped a large tray of food. Although you were attending to your meal and conversation, that crashing sound would likely get through your attentional filters and capture your attention. You would have no choice but to notice it. That attentional capture would be caused by the sound from the environment: it would be bottom-up.

Alternatively, top-down processes are generally goal directed, slow, deliberate, effortful, and under your control (Fine & Minnery, 2009; Miller & Cohen, 2001; Miller & D’Esposito, 2005). For instance, if you misplaced your keys, how would you look for them? If you had a yellow key fob, you would probably look for yellowness of a certain size in specific locations, such as on the counter, coffee table, and other similar places. You would not look for yellowness on your ceiling fan, because you know keys are not normally lying on top of a ceiling fan. That act of searching for a certain size of yellowness in some locations and not others would be top-down—under your control and based on your experience.

One way to think of this concept is that sensation is a physical process, whereas perception is psychological. For example, upon walking into a kitchen and smelling the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, the  sensation  is the scent receptors detecting the odour of cinnamon, but the  perception  may be “Mmm, this smells like the bread Grandma used to bake when the family gathered for holidays.”

Although our perceptions are built from sensations, not all sensations result in perception. In fact, we often don’t perceive stimuli that remain relatively constant over prolonged periods of time. This is known as  sensory adaptation . Imagine going to a city that you have never visited. You check in to the hotel, but when you get to your room, there is a road construction sign with a bright flashing light outside your window. Unfortunately, there are no other rooms available, so you are stuck with a flashing light. You decide to watch television to unwind. The flashing light was extremely annoying when you first entered your room. It was as if someone was continually turning a bright yellow spotlight on and off in your room, but after watching television for a short while, you no longer notice the light flashing. The light is still flashing and filling your room with yellow light every few seconds, and the photoreceptors in your eyes still sense the light, but you no longer perceive the rapid changes in lighting conditions. That you no longer perceive the flashing light demonstrates sensory adaptation and shows that while closely associated, sensation and perception are different.

There is another factor that affects sensation and perception: attention. Attention plays a significant role in determining what is sensed versus what is perceived. Imagine you are at a party full of music, chatter, and laughter. You get involved in an interesting conversation with a friend, and you tune out all the background noise. If someone interrupted you to ask what song had just finished playing, you would probably be unable to answer that question.

LINK TO LEARNING

One of the most interesting demonstrations of how important attention is in determining our perception of the environment occurred in a famous study conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999). In this study, participants watched a video of people dressed in black and white passing basketballs. Participants were asked to count the number of times the team dressed in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla costume walks among the two teams. You would think that someone would notice the gorilla, right? Nearly half of the people who watched the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all, despite the fact that he was clearly visible for nine seconds. Because participants were so focused on the number of times the team dressed in white was passing the ball, they completely tuned out other visual information.   Inattentional blindness  is the failure to notice something that is completely visible because the person was actively attending to something else and did not pay attention to other things (Mack & Rock, 1998; Simons & Chabris, 1999).

In a similar experiment, researchers tested inattentional blindness by asking participants to observe images moving across a computer screen. They were instructed to focus on either white or black objects, disregarding the other colour. When a red cross passed across the screen, about one third of subjects did not notice it ( Figure SAP.5 ) (Most, Simons, Scholl, & Chabris, 2000).

A photograph shows a person staring at a screen that displays one red cross toward the left side and numerous black and white shapes all over.

Motivation can also affect perception. Have you ever been expecting a really important phone call and, while taking a shower, you think you hear the phone ringing, only to discover that it is not? If so, then you have experienced how motivation to detect a meaningful stimulus can shift our ability to discriminate between a true sensory stimulus and background noise.

Our perceptions can also be affected by our beliefs, values, prejudices, expectations, and life experiences. As you will see later in this chapter, individuals who are deprived of the experience of binocular vision during critical periods of development have trouble perceiving depth (Fawcett, Wang, & Birch, 2005). The shared experiences of people within a given cultural context can have pronounced effects on perception. For example, Marshall Segall, Donald Campbell, and Melville Herskovits (1963) published the results of a multinational study in which they demonstrated that individuals from Western  cultures  were more prone to experience certain types of visual illusions than individuals from non-Western cultures, and vice versa. One such illusion that Westerners were more likely to experience was the  Müller-Lyer  illusion ( Figure SAP.6 ): The lines appear to be different lengths, but they are actually the same length.

Two vertical lines are shown on the left in (a). They each have V–shaped brackets on their ends, but one line has the brackets angled toward its center, and the other has the brackets angled away from its center. The lines are the same length, but the second line appears longer due to the orientation of the brackets on its endpoints. To the right of these lines is a two-dimensional drawing of walls meeting at 90-degree angles. Within this drawing are 2 lines which are the same length, but appear different lengths. Because one line is bordering a window on a wall that has the appearance of being farther away from the perspective of the viewer, it appears shorter than the other line which marks the 90 degree angle where the facing wall appears closer to the viewer’s perspective point.

These perceptual differences were consistent with differences in the types of environmental features experienced on a regular basis by people in a given cultural context. People in Western cultures, for example, have a perceptual context of buildings with straight lines, what Segall’s study called a carpentered world (Segall et al., 1966). In contrast, people from certain non-Western cultures with an uncarpentered view, such as the Zulu of South Africa, whose villages are made up of round huts arranged in circles, are less susceptible to this illusion (Segall et al., 1999). It is not just vision that is affected by cultural factors. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the ability to identify an odour, and rate its pleasantness and its intensity, varies cross-culturally (Ayabe-Kanamura, Saito, Distel, Martínez-Gómez, & Hudson, 1998).

Children described as thrill seekers are more likely to show taste preferences for intense sour flavours (Liem, Westerbeek, Wolterink, Kok, & de Graaf, 2004), which suggests that basic aspects of personality might affect perception. Furthermore, individuals who hold positive attitudes toward reduced-fat foods are more likely to rate foods labeled as reduced fat as tasting better than people who have less positive attitudes about these products (Aaron, Mela, & Evans, 1994).

Introduction to Psychology & Neuroscience by Edited by Leanne Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Sensation and Perception

Introduction to Sensation and Perception

What you’ll learn to do: differentiate between sensation and perception.

1890, Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Man in a suit holding a top hat is reaching out with a flower in his hand. The background is multicolored swirls.

Sensation and perception are two separate processes that are very closely related. Sensation is input about the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors, and perception is the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations. In other words, senses are the physiological basis of perception. Perception of the same senses may vary from one person to another because each person’s brain interprets stimuli differently based on that individual’s learning, memory, emotions, and expectations.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  • Define sensation and explain its connection to the concepts of absolute threshold, difference threshold, and subliminal messages
  • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception

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The Link Between Sensation and Perception

Sensation and perception are two distinct processes that are closely linked. The senses constitute the stimuli that the body’s sensory receptors detect from the surrounding environment. On the other hand, perception describes a mental process where the perceived cues are selected, organized, and interpreted into meaningful patterns (Byrne, 2018). Although people may have the same senses about a particular issue, their perceptions may vary because the brain interprets the stimuli differently depending on individuals’ learning, memory, emotions, and expectations.

Sensation refers to a physical process whereby the human body learns and understands the surrounding environment. It leverages sensory receptors which are found in specialized organs including the mouth, ears, eyes, nose, and skin (Hearst, 2019). These specialized neurons correspond to the five known senses – vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The sensory receptors receive different kinds of stimuli from a range of sources and transform them into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system (Byrne, 2018). Thus, sensation helps people learn about the world around them, as well as the condition of the internal body system.

Perception is a psychological process that involves interpreting the information collected from the environment. The interpretation affects the way people interact with the world around them. The process of perception involves both bottom-up and top-down factors (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2016). The bottom-up approach makes use of the fact that perception depends on the sensory system. A top-down process, on the other hand, involves the interpretation of the sensations concerning the available knowledge, experience, and thoughts (Byrne, 2018). It starts with the most general details and narrows toward the most specific ones.

Although sensation and perception are two different processes, they depend on each other and the method of feeling leads to perception. During sensation, a receptor is activated at the level of the stimulus. During perception, the stimuli are processed into meaning patterns that involve awareness (Dretske, 2015). Consequently, perception depends on the body’s senses; however, the body does not perceive all sensations. This kind of sensory is known as sensory adaptation. Some factors affect both perception and sensation, and they include attention, which plays an essential role in what is sensed and what is perceived. Perceptions are also affected by several factors such as personal beliefs, cultural norms and values, and past experiences (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2016). Therefore, people perceive things in different ways based on many personal factors.

One of the most controversial experiences that human beings believe in through the various senses is reality. Many people hold a unique set of beliefs that significantly influence the way they think and feel about themselves, others, and the world around them. What a person believes can change his or her reality. That is, what an individual believes may eventually turn out to be the truth (Dretske, 2015). From the judgment made when crossing a road to trusting the existence of some microscopic items, it is believed to be a reality, but that is far from the truth (Byrne, 2018). Research shows that human beings are only capable of sensing just enough to make them survive (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2016). Such sensations translate to conclusions about the real world around us, and this constitutes perceptual experiences.

Moreover, the perceptual experience determines the interpretation of the state of the world around us. According to Dretske (2015), this determination is only made possible by the fact the brain intends to know only those things that are within the surrounding environment. In some circumstances, some of the inferences drawn by the mind are incorrect. Such inaccuracies are due to anomalies in human perceptual experiences. We can, therefore, record these anomalies to determine the perceptual apparatus rather than relying entirely on reality (Goldstein & Brockmole, 2016). Sometimes errors experienced in making judgments can also be persistent and vary from person to person. Such mistakes are always termed illusions and often influence how people make decisions on the various aspects of life. Some experiences do not positively give a reasonable interpretation of real life, but they play a vital role in how people make resolutions in the world.

Each individual has his or her way of perceiving issues. The sensation towards a given factor or change in the surrounding may have similar effects on people but each one’s perception will differ (Dretske, 2015). The distinctions in perceptions are mostly brought by the kind of knowledge, emotions, and experiences about the issue. One of the habits I would not say I like to experience is living together with people who smoke and drink excessively. The smell of alcohol and the effect of smoke from cigarettes make me uncomfortable. When I interact with such individuals, the only option I may have is to avoid them. Behaving so leads to prejudice and discrimination against those who have chosen to live the way they like.

Morality is also another aspect of life that is viewed from different perspectives. A particular society may consider a given habit normal, but another one may see it as an act of inhumanity and against its norms and values (Dretske, 2015; Goldstein & Brockmole, 2016). Some communities are intolerant to certain types of behaviors such as same-sex relationships. Other advanced societies may look at it as a standard and allow their members to engage in any relationship they like. Interacting with such individuals may be a challenging task to me so I often choose to avoid them. Other people in the same society may consider it an act of discrimination and prejudice.

Public interactions and communications are some of the situations that require the highest-level decency. According to Goldstein and Brockmole (2016), this cleanliness should range from the body to the language used in such fora. If I am in such a function and one of the attendees happens to be having a smelling body or has bad breath, then I would not be able to stay there. In such circumstances, many people will look at me as being discriminatory. People perceive situations in life differently and never feel that their actions might hurt others.

In conclusion, sensation and perception are two important processes that enable humans to learn and understand the world around them. They occur simultaneously as sensory receptors detect stimuli from different sources, which are then organized, interpreted, and experienced consciously during the perception process. However, although people experience the same senses towards given stimuli, their perception of the same phenomenon may differ considerably. Prior experiences and personal values and beliefs influence how we interpret various issues in the world. Such incidents include looking at everything being a reality and other anomalies that may distort the real happenings in the environment around.

Byrne, A. (2018). Perception and sensation . Oxford University Press.

Dretske, F. (2015). Perception versus conception: The goldilocks test. In J. Zeimbekis & A. Raftopoulos (Eds.), The Cognitive penetrability of perception: New philosophical perspectives (pp. 163–173). Oxford University Press.

Goldstein, E. B., & Brockmole, J. (2016). Sensation and perception (10 th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Hearst, E. (Ed.). (2019). The first century of experimental psychology . Routledge.

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Example Of Sensation And Perception Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Psychology , Development , Perception , Information , Human , Skin , Thinking , Brain

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Published: 01/28/2020

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In many fields of study on human anatomy and biological responses, most people have made it a task of psychologists to keenly engage in research on matters pertaining to brain or mental operations. This was expected to be more in anatomy and philosophy but these two disciplines moved this to psychology. Sensation and perception are two very closely intertwined aspects in human life and behavioral studies. To begin with, sensation can be defined as the process of receiving stimuli from the environment. From a simpler perspective, a change in temperature creates a sensation through the skin which is interpreted by the brain using the aspect of perception. From a linguistics point of view, it can be defined as the unelaborated elementary awareness of stimulation. This turns back to the initial definition of sensation being reception of a stimulus by an organism. The other aspect is perception. From a philosophical perspective, perception involves the brain where it is defined as a mental process of coming up with useful information on the data received by sensation. This can be further elaborated to claim that perception involves synthesis or processing of data by the brain to come up with a conclusion on a sensed aspect. From the above elaborations, it is clear that perception relies almost solely on sensation for data to be processed while sensation depends on a similar magnitude on perception to be effective. It is therefore prudent and true for me to conclude that sensation and perception are very important stages in processing of human or other animal senses (Kalat, 2011). For us to have a very appropriate and vivid illustration of these two aspects of mind or thought, let us view them as thought pieces. Taking them as thought pieces allows us to treat each as an independent entity whereby it can stand alone as a piece that is controlled independent of the other. Taking a look at sensation as an independent thought piece, it is valid to claim that to sensation uses both the CNS and the process of thinking. Once the sense receives a stimulus, it relays the information about it to the brain. The brain initiates a process of thinking whereby it processes the stimulus and initiates a process of thinking whereby a thought about the necessary step to take is created. This is in response to another standalone thought piece or process known as perception. This indicates that sensation can be taken as piece thought that deals with reception and relaying of stimuli to the brains. The other thought piece takes the received stimuli and decodes it according to certain pre-conceived factors about the stimuli. After successful decoding, the perception also assesses the situation and as a though piece helps deduce the best response to the stimuli (Kalat, 2011). In my paper, my main concept is sensation. This is mainly because it is the concept that explains fully on how we as human beings perceive any stimuli in the environment and makes us very much responsive to the external world. As a matter of fact, it helps us detect any changes thus has the ability to escape from what would have previously harmed us. Sensation as earlier described deals with detection. This is the main aspect in psychology that helps the brains to develop some response tables and strategies associated with the detected stimuli. For example, a person whose skin does not sense any changes to temperature cannot have the brain develops response structures on changes to temperature. This though piece would then completely disable the whole thought on dealing with changes in the atmosphere. Therefore, absence of this piece would present a very big problem to the person (Heffner, 2009). In my personal experience, the process of sensation is very important. It can help a person respond appropriately to any changes. As an example, about two years ago, I went out for bike riding with my friends. While out in the field, I saw one of the competitors veer into my lane. It was my sensation piece that made me detect of an impending collision that would see both of us out of the race or even injured. Still on the same incident, my other sense on sight made me detect an alternative instead of moving directly into a crash with the competitor. It triggered a response whereby I had to respond after perception and other decision making thought pieces played their roles. Learning from events and occurrences like these in my life, I have developed mixed feelings about this piece of thought. To begin with, I have developed a strong positive feeling about it. This is mainly due to the potential of the feeling that makes me think it is very important. To begin with, sensation helps a person to learn of the immediate environment in which he/she is. This helps a lot in making that person know how to respond and keep safe in the environment. For example, it is the sensation from the skin that helps a person to detect adverse weather on top of vision. This is a very important aspect since adverse weather is lethal to the human and other organisms’ bodies. The other advantage is the ability to clearly distinguish a stimulus. Under this topic, I can claim that sensation helps human beings and other organisms know where to go at what time and how to react to which situations. Take for example a person sees an overcoming vehicle and is staggering at the middle of the road. This person is most likely to take to one side and the driver knows how to react. The driver also knows how to judge the distance which is also an aspect highly affected by sensation and judgment (perception) (Heffner, 2009). Another advantage of this concept is the ability of a sensation organ to develop a pre-conception guiding the brain in its decision making to arrive at the best response mechanism. For example, when a child is left exposed to a source of infrared, the skin senses the heat and the child drifts away from the fire. If that child is not exposed to such a stimulus, he/she might have no pre-conception on how to deal with it later making the brain to have excess tasks while dealing with it once it occurs. A look in philosophy exposes that sensation is very important when dealing with the society. If one does not express any feelings or emotions, he/she is viewed as deviant from the normality. This is supported by the fact that philosophy acknowledges that sensation is a very important aspect in human thinking process. It acts as a data collection mechanism and relays the collected information to the brain for thinking to take place. From a moral perspective, thinking is highly guided by sensation. Without any sensation, deviance sets in and forces a person to be viewed as morally deficient (Kalat, 2011). However, there is also a negative aspect of sensation. For example, sensation can make a person to overestimate or underestimate a situation. For example, if a person is not exposed to bright light, the brain and other aspects involved in thoughts are not prepared for such a scenario thus the person can easily get harmed when exposed to such great light. This is the same to other sensation organs. Also, the main task of sensation is to detect. Getting used to a certain stimulus may tend to make the body less reactive to the stimulus causing gradual destruction of the sensation organ by the stimuli. This can be experienced in people whole have got their eyes continually exposed to bright light which tends to destroy the eyes. In simple terms, excessive sensation tends to reduce sensitivity of the sensors and in the very end causes harm to the organs and human body systems as a whole (Heffner, 2009). In conclusion, perception and sensation are very important aspects in human life. They help in thinking whereby they provide information and processing of the information so as to evoke proper response. This is an indication that sensation and perception are two very important aspects on human psychology that must be inculcated correctly in a person.

Kalat, J. W. 2011. Introduction to psychology, 9th edition, Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth Publishing Company Heffner D 2009, Psychology 101, retrieved from http://allpsych.com/psychology101/index.html

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Home — Essay Samples — Psychology — Perception — Sensation and Perception: World of Human Sensory Experience

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Sensation and Perception: World of Human Sensory Experience

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Understanding sensation, perception: making sense of sensation, the role of attention, perceptual illusions: when perception deceives, the influence of experience and culture, conclusion: the complex interplay of sensation and perception.

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sensation and perception psychology essay

Biological Psychology: Sensation and Perception Essay

Sensation refers to the process through which signals from the environment are directed from sensory receptors and passed to the brain. Sensation involves the use of the five senses, which are sight, taste, touch, smell and sound. Perception, on the other hand, refers to the process of organizing and interpreting sensory information in order to understand the environment, as well as the way we respond to it. Sensation is considered to be a part of perception. Signals in the nervous system are involved in perception leading to the sense organs’ stimulation.

One of the sensory processes that help us to lessen the din is the absolute threshold. It refers to the lowest motivation that one needs to have for sense organs to single out information. The difference threshold is considered to be the slightest disparity by which our organism can identify some difference between two various stimuli. Sensory adaptation is the third process that appears to be helpful when one wants to lessen the din. Finally, sensory adaptation is the process by which we get used to changes in sensation, such as diminishing sensitivity to unchanging stimuli, for example, being in a room that is freshly painted. At first the smell would be strong and unbearable but as one continues to stay in the room they get used to it and they no longer smell the paint.

Perceptual organization, perceptual grouping, perceptual constancy and perceptual adaptation also help us lessen the din. Perceptual organization takes place through figure, ground perceptual and perceptual grouping. In order to perceive an object we, first, pick the object and separate it from the rest of the items that are in the surrounding.

Four principles that govern perceptual grouping are proximity, which refers to the tendency to perceive stimuli that are near each other as if they belong together, similarity as the perceptual tendency to group together stimuli that resemble another, continuity which explains that we tend to perceive group continuous patterns rather than discontinuous ones, and closure, that is the perceptual tendency to fill gaps enabling us to perceive disconnected parts as being complete.

Perceptual constancy refers to the aspect of recognizing objects without being deceived by their shape, brightness, color or size. Perceptual adaptation is the capability to change to an unnaturally displaced and inverted illustration. Perceptions are influenced by characteristics of the stimulus object, such as color, vividness and pattern of the object, context characteristics that are the setting in which the perception occurs, characteristics of the perceiver, such as education and culture, and the extra sensory perception which refers to the perception that takes place without the involvement of senses.

In a case when a person loses the whole apparatus of the ear, the sense of balance and equilibrium would be impaired. The reason for this is that the sense organs for equilibrium are located around the ear. Without the sense balance it is impossible for one to hold the body and head in a normal position. The inner structure of the ear enables balance and movement of the head. Freberg (2009) explains that “the utricle, saccule, and semicircular canals provide information about the position and the movement of the head while the utricle and saccule contain hair cells, whose cilia extend into a gelatinous layer covered by otoliths.

Tilting the head exerts force on the cilia of the hair cell, which in turn modify signaling in the auditory nerve” (p. 203). When these parts of the ear are once damaged or missing, it will lead not only to hearing loss but also a loss of the sense of balance and equilibrium. The middle and outer ear are only involved in hearing. Damage or a case where the above are totally missing would lead to hearing loss and in severe cases individuals become dumb.

Freberg, L. (2009). Discovering Biological Psychology (2nd ed.). Boston, United States of America: Cengage Learning. Web.

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Sensation And Perception Essay

Sense is defined as “the capacity to become aware of stimuli through the senses.” Perception, on the other hand, is “the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information.” In other words, sensation is the process of detecting and registering stimuli from the environment while perception refers to the brain’s interpretation of those stimuli.

There are a variety of different theories that attempt to explain how we sense and perceive our surroundings. The most prominent theories are Gestalt theory, structuralism, functionalism, and behaviorism.

Gestalt theory stresses that we do not merely see individual objects but rather we see patterns or Gestalts. For example, when looking at a chessboard, we do not see 64 individual squares but rather we see the overall pattern of the board.

Structuralism, on the other hand, focuses on the individual elements that make up a whole. In other words, it emphasizes the structure of sensations rather than their organization. Functionalism looks at how sensory information is used in order to perform certain functions such as survival or reproduction. Finally, behaviorism states that all behavior is learned and that we do not have any innate knowledge or understanding of our environment.

Humans use their five senses to perceive the world around them. We utilize the fundamental senses of hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell to do so. Each sense has an absolute limit beyond which we are unable to detect any amount of whatever the stimulus may be. Humans also have the ability for their senses to adapt to their surroundings.

For example, if you are in a crowded and noisy place, your ears will eventually adjust to the level of sound and it will no longer be as bothersome.

Sense data is what we receive from our senses. This information is then processed by the brain to give us perception. Perception is what we understand from the sensation. It’s how we organize and interpret the sense data to create a mental representation of the world around us.

There are different theories that try to explain how humans process sensation and perception. The most popular theory is called Gestalt psychology. This theory suggests that people tend to see things as a whole rather than individual parts. Another theory is called signal detection theory. This theory states that human beings have a certain level of background noise. When a stimulus is presented, we try to detect the signal against the background noise.

Both theories have been proven to be correct in different ways and help us understand how we process the world around us. Through sensation and perception, we are able to make sense of the world and everything in it.

Sensory adaptation occurs because the more time we spend in a certain environment, the more accustomed our senses become to that area, making them less sensitive to it. Sensation differs from perception because it is how the brain interprets the world around us. It is how we make sense of things in the world. Attention is an important element of perception.

The more we pay attention to something, the more it stands out to us.

There are different types of Sense:

– Vision (sight)

– Hearing (sound)

– Smell (olfactory)

– Taste (gustatory)

– Touch (tactile)

– Sense of movement (vestibular)

– Sense of body position and orientation (proprioception).

Sense data is collected by our sensory receptors which send information to the brain to be interpreted. The five main senses are vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Each sense has a different way of collecting information about the world around us. For example, our eyes collect light waves and our ears collect sound waves.

There are three different types of stimuli:

– External stimuli are things that come from the environment around us like light, sound, and smell.

– Internal stimuli are things that come from inside our bodies like hunger, thirst, and pain.

– Psychological stimuli are things that come from our thoughts, emotions, and memories.

Sense data is collected by our senses and sent to the brain to be interpreted. The five main senses are vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Each sense has a different way of collecting information about the world around us. For example, our eyes collect light waves and our ears collect sound waves. The type of stimulus (external, internal, or psychological) affects how the brain will interpret the information.

Attention is necessary for us to be consciously aware of our surroundings. Selective attention is how the brain sifts through a variety of inputs, deciding which things deserve our focus. When I recall the example in the book about an ambiguous figure, I think of perception because it might be either an old crone-looking woman or a beautiful young lady.

The way we perceive the world is always going to be biased by our past experiences, what we focus on in the present moment, and what we expect to see.

The book outlines different theories on how we process sensation and perception. The first one is called transtheoretical model which states that there are three main components to processing information: sensing (picking up info from the environment), transducing (changing that info into a neural signal), and perceiving (interpreting the signal). Next is signal detection theory which says that there’s always gonna be some noise (or error) when we’re trying to detect a stimulus. The last theory, Gestalt principles, deals with how we organize information. All of these theories are important in understanding how we make sense of the world.

Sense data, or sensory input, is collected by our senses from the environment. Our brain then has to interpret this information, which is where perception comes in. Perception is basically what we focus on while looking at something, and it can be influenced by a number of factors. One factor is expectation, or what we expect to see. Another factor is context, or the surrounding area that an object is in. The third factor is salience, which has to do with how noticeable an object is. All of these factors play a role in how we perceive the world around us.

In conclusion, sensation and perception are two closely related topics that are essential to understand in order to have a better understanding of how we interact with the world. Our senses collect information from the environment, which our brain then has to interpret. This interpretation is based on a number of factors, including expectation, context, and salience. All of these factors play a role in how we see the world around us.

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  2. Perception

  3. Depth Perception Psychology

  4. What is the difference between sensation and perception in the brain #difference #perception #brain

  5. Ch 3 2 Cognition Sensation vs Perception

  6. Sensation and perception in psychology #viral#trending#ytshorts#psychology#medicalstudent#viralshort

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  1. Perceiving Is Believing

    Understanding Sensation and Perception Sensation is physical energy detection by our sensory organs. Our eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, and skin relay raw data via a process of transduction,...

  2. Perception: The Sensory Experience of the World

    Environmental stimulus: The world is full of stimuli that can attract attention.Environmental stimulus is everything in the environment that has the potential to be perceived. Attended stimulus: The attended stimulus is the specific object in the environment on which our attention is focused. Image on the retina: This part of the perception process involves light passing through the cornea and ...

  3. Sensation and Perception

    Learning Objectives By the end of this section, you will be able to: Distinguish between sensation and perception Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception Sensation What does it mean to sense something?

  4. Sensation and Perception

    Sensation is input about the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors, and perception is the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations. In other words, senses are the physiological basis of perception.

  5. PDF SENSATION AND PERCEPTION a unit lesson plan for high school psychology

    1 Lesson 1: Introduction to Sensation and Perception Activity 1.1: Sensation: Movement Detectors Lesson 2: Vision and Audition Activity 2.1: Distribution of Rods, Cones, and Color Vision in the Retina Activity 2.2: Blind Spot in Vision Activity 2.3: Locating Sound Sources Lesson 3: Other Senses Activity 3.1: Sensory Interdependencies

  6. 5.1 Sensation versus Perception

    Throughout this chapter sensations and perceptions will be discussed as separate events, whereas in reality, sensations and perceptions can be more accurately thought of as occurring along a continued where boundaries are more fluent between where a sensation ends and a perception begins. Sensation and Perception: Crash Course Psychology #5

  7. What is Sensation?

    Sensory receptors are specialized neurons that respond to specific types of stimuli. When sensory information is detected by a sensory receptor, sensation has occurred. For example, light that enters the eye causes chemical changes in cells that line the back of the eye. These cells relay messages, in the form of action potentials (as you ...

  8. Sensation vs. Perception

    Learning Objectives By the end of this section, you will be able to: Distinguish between sensation and perception Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception What does it mean to sense something?

  9. 8.1: Sensation vs Perception

    The topics of sensation and perception are among the oldest and most important in all of psychology. People are equipped with senses such as sight, hearing and taste that help us to take in the world around us. Amazingly, our senses have the ability to convert real-world information into electrical information that can be processed by the brain.

  10. Sensation vs. Perception

    Distinguish between sensation and perception Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in perception Sensation What does it mean to sense something? Sensory receptors are specialized neurones that respond to specific types of stimuli.

  11. Introduction to Sensation and Perception

    Sensation is input about the physical world obtained by our sensory receptors, and perception is the process by which the brain selects, organizes, and interprets these sensations. In other words, senses are the physiological basis of perception. Perception of the same senses may vary from one person to another because each person's brain ...

  12. Psychology: Sensation and Perception

    Psychology: Sensation and Perception Topic: Psychology Words: 1113 Pages: 4 Table of Contents Introduction Sensation and perception are distinct, interlinked, and complementary processes that enable people to interact with and interpret the world.

  13. Sensation and Perception

    Abstract This chapter will deal with the history of sensation and perception, beginning with the perceptual problem, which asks, ... Department of Psychology, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Search for more papers by this author. Stanley Coren PhD, Stanley Coren PhD. University of British Columbia, Department of Psychology, Vancouver, BC, Canada ...

  14. Sensation and Perception Essay

    Sensation involves the detection of physical stimuli by our sensory organs, while perception involves the interpretation of these stimuli to create meaningful perceptions of the world. Understanding these processes can help us to better understand how we perceive the world and how we can use this knowledge to improve our lives.

  15. Sensation and Perception: Study Guide

    From a general summary to chapter summaries to explanations of famous quotes, the SparkNotes Sensation and Perception Study Guide has everything you need to ace quizzes, tests, and essays.

  16. The Link Between Sensation and Perception

    Sensation refers to a physical process whereby the human body learns and understands the surrounding environment. It leverages sensory receptors which are found in specialized organs including the mouth, ears, eyes, nose, and skin (Hearst, 2019). These specialized neurons correspond to the five known senses - vision, hearing, taste, smell ...

  17. Sensation vs Perception Examples

    Sensation differs from the idea of perception because perception is how the brain interprets the world around us. It is how we find the meaning in the world. A major part of perception is attention. Attention is what allows us to consciously interpret the world.

  18. Sensation and Perception Studies in Psychology Essay

    Sensation and Perception Studies in Psychology Essay Exclusively available on IvyPanda There is a difference between sensation and perception in psychology. The sensation is defined as how one receives information through sensory organs. Perception is the psychological process of organizing and interpreting information in the mind.

  19. Essay On Sensation And Perception

    Sensation and perception are two very closely intertwined aspects in human life and behavioral studies. To begin with, sensation can be defined as the process of receiving stimuli from the environment.

  20. Sensation and Perception: World of Human Sensory Experience: [Essay

    Sensation and perception are fundamental aspects of human cognition that shape our understanding of the world around us. In this essay, we will delve into the intricate processes of sensation and perception, exploring how they work together to provide us with a rich and dynamic view of our environment. Say no to plagiarism.

  21. Biological Psychology: Sensation and Perception Essay

    Sensation refers to the process through which signals from the environment are directed from sensory receptors and passed to the brain. Sensation involves the use of the five senses, which are sight, taste, touch, smell and sound. Perception, on the other hand, refers to the process of organizing and interpreting sensory information in order to ...

  22. Sensation And Perception In Advertising

    Sensation and Perception are somethings we use every day in our lives. Sensation is described as using information outside of our bodies, to bring them in, and into the brain. Its a process. Sensory organs, then sensory receptors convert the smell to neural impulses and then bring them from the …show more content…

  23. Sensation And Perception Essay Essay on Perception, Psychology

    Sensation And Perception Essay Essay on Perception, Psychology Home » Perception » Sensation And Perception Essay Sensation And Perception Essay Sense is defined as "the capacity to become aware of stimuli through the senses." Perception, on the other hand, is "the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information."