Chapter 4: Sensation and Perception

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
  • Describe the basic anatomy of the visual system
  • Describe how light waves enable vision
  • Describe the trichromatic theory of color vision and the opponent-process theory
  • Describe how monocular and binocular cues are used in the perception of depth
  • Describe the basic anatomy and function of the auditory system
  • Show how physical properties of sound waves are associated with perceptual experience
  • Explain how we encode and perceive pitch and localize sound
  • Describe types of hearing loss
  • Summarize the chemical process of taste and smell
  • Explain the receptors that respond to touch
  • Explain the receptors that respond to touch
  • Explain the importance of pain and give examples of how expectations and context affect pain and touch experiences.
  • Describe the basic functions of the vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic sensory systems
  • Give examples of gestalt principles, including the figure-ground relationship, proximity, similarity, continuity, and closure
  • Define the basic terminology and basic principles of multimodal perception
  • Give examples of multimodal and crossmodal behavioral effects
  • Explain how and why psychologists use illusions
A photograph shows a person playing a piano on the sidewalk near a busy intersection in a city.

Figure 1. If you were standing in the midst of this street scene, you would be absorbing and processing numerous pieces of sensory input. (credit: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

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. But while sensory information is critical to our survival, there is so much information available at any given time that we would be overwhelmed if we were forced to attend to all of it. In fact, we are aware of only a fraction of the sensory information taken in by our sensory systems at any given time.

This module 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 module will close with a discussion of a historically important theory of perception called the Gestalt theory. This theory attempts to explain some underlying principles of perception.