Basics: neuroscience and psychophysics
Distinguish between sensation and perception
Distinguish between top-down and bottom-up contributions to 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, 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).
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. refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both and 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 . 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 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 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.
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OpenStax, Psychology Chapter 5.1 Sensation and Perception.
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neural response to a change in the environment
interpretation of sensation, which takes into account current context and past experiences
stimulus-driven responses; sensation
processes that alter sensory responses based on knowledge of the situation
decreased response to a stimulus after repetition (or persistence) of the stimulus
a diverse collection of neural processes that selects or prioritizes some stimuli over others