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Receptor Processes & Sensory Mechanisms

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  • 0:03 Sensory Information
  • 1:23 Sensation
  • 2:33 Perception
  • 3:25 Receptor Processes
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do we receive and interpret information from the world around us? In this lesson, we'll look at an overview of sensation and perception, including the differences between the two and the basic process of moving from one to the other.

Sensory Information

Take a moment and pay attention to the world around you. There's a lot going on! You're looking at this video, but there are also probably some things going on in your peripheral vision. There might even be a light causing a glare on top of the video.

What do you hear? Obviously, you hear the sound of my voice, but what else? The gentle hum of an air conditioner? Someone talking across the room? The sound of a bird chirping outside your window?

Think about the way your body feels. Notice the chair beneath you and where it makes contact with your legs or back. Do you feel warmth on your skin? Coolness?

Your body is experiencing sensations all day wherever you go. Your five senses (sight, sound, smell, feeling, and taste) give you information about the world around you, and your body takes it in. Some of these things we notice, like the sound of a sudden crash. Others, we tune out, like the feel of a gentle breeze on our skin. But we receive that information nonetheless.

But how, exactly, does something go from being out in the world to being perceived by us? Let's look at the difference in perception and sensation and the process behind receiving sensory information.

Perception & Sensation

Let's zoom in on what you are hearing right this moment. Besides my voice, there are probably other sounds that you can hear, even if you have headphones in.

At this moment, the air in and around your ears is vibrating at different frequencies. Your ears are picking up on these changes in vibration from moment to moment.

Once your ears receive the signal, they send it to the brain. The brain then makes sense of the vibrations, turning them into sounds, words, and meaning.

Sensation is the stimulation of a sensory receptor. If that sounds complicated, it's not. Just think about the vibrations in the air in and around your ears. Those vibrations are setting off little alarm bells inside the sensory receptors, or nerves that receive sensory information. The nerves pay attention because something has changed.

Sensation can happen almost anywhere in the body, though it happens in different ways. Sound vibrations stimulate the sensory receptors in your ears, while pain receptors in your skin react when you've cut your finger or burned your leg. Sight receptors in your eyes are stimulated differently in light or in darkness.

But sensation isn't where we stop. After all, you aren't sitting here thinking about vibrations; you're thinking about the things you're hearing from my voice.

Perception is the brain's interpretation of a sensory signal. So when the nerves in your ears send information to your brain, it interprets that information and figures out that you're hearing a voice, that it's a female voice, what the voice is saying, and other information about it.

The same happens for all senses: that signal from your finger is interpreted in your brain as pain, and that (plus other sensory information, like sight) leads you to understand that you've cut your finger. When sensory receptors in your eyes are suddenly stimulated in a different way, your brain perceives that you are in darkness whereas you were in light a moment before.

Receptor Processes

So sensation and perception, while similar, are not the same thing. They are, in fact, part of a process: Sensation leads to perception. But how, exactly, does that happen?

Remember when you were a little kid, and you used to play the game telephone? Jenny would whisper something in Wendy's ear, and then Wendy would whisper in Joey's ear, who would whisper in Johnny's ear, and so on down the line. The process of receiving sensations and turning them into perceptions is kind of like that.

There are four general steps in the sensory process. They are:

1. Physical stimulus. A vibration hits the receptors in your ear, or a light wave hits the receptors in your eye. The stimulus is just the thing that causes a reaction; in this example, the sound or light waves.

2. Physiological response. This is where sensation comes in: the physical stimulus causes a response. The cochlea of your ear vibrates, and the nerves say, 'Wait! Something's going on!' Or the nerves in your eyes say, 'Hang on! Something's different about these light waves.'

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