What is Sensation in Psychology? - Definition & Concept

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  • 0:55 Definition of Sensation
  • 2:00 Vision
  • 2:33 Hearing
  • 3:15 Touch
  • 3:45 Taste
  • 4:28 Smell
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Lesson Transcript
Chris Clause
Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

In this lesson, you will learn about the concept of sensation and the five distinct subsystems that comprise sensation. Following the lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

The Invisible Work Force

Imagine you're sitting at a park having a picnic on a sunny spring evening. You just finished taking a big psychology exam, and you are relaxing on the green grass without a care in the world. The birds are singing, you feel the warmth of the setting sun on your skin, the aroma of dogwood trees in bloom is in the air, the taste of your favorite sandwich still on your tongue. Sounds pretty relaxing, right?

Even though you might feel relaxed, your nervous system is hard at work, like an invisible workforce. In order to experience that relaxing day, you must first have the ability to internalize all those pleasant things that are going on around you at the park. In other words, if your brain is not aware of the environment, then you can't truly experience it.

Sensation is the first step in the process of allowing your brain to experience the features and characteristics of the environment around you.

Definition of Sensation

Sensation is the process that allows our brains to take in information via our five senses, which can then be experienced and interpreted by the brain. Sensation occurs thanks to our five sensory systems: vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Each of these systems maintains unique neural pathways with the brain which allows them to transfer information from the environment to the brain very rapidly. Without sensation, we would not be able to enjoy the sunny spring day at the park.

Each sensory system contains unique sensory receptors, which are designed to detect specific environmental stimuli. Once detected, sensory receptors convert environmental stimulus energy into electrochemical neural impulses. The brain then interprets those neural messages, which allow the brain to experience and make decisions about the environment. Let's take a little bit closer look at the process of sensation by examining each of the five sensory systems involved.


The visual system transfers light energy, which occur naturally in the form of wavelengths, into neural messages via the eyes. This process is known as visuoreception. The subtle qualities of the wavelengths, such as their height, width, and frequency, are detected by structures within our eyes. These subtle differences result in the experience of seeing different colors, shapes, and textures. Thinking back to the park, the ever-changing characteristics of those wavelengths create an image that your brain interprets as the setting sun.


The auditory system operates similarly to the visual system in that sounds are transmitted through the environment in the form of wavelengths. Much like wavelengths of light, the qualities of the auditory wavelength will determine the qualities of the sound that is heard in the brain. Sound waves enter the ear, and once the wavelengths reach the middle ear, auditory structures convert these wavelengths into vibrations. The vibrations are transferred into neural impulses, which are sent directly to the brain. This process of detecting vibrations is referred to as mechanoreception. The singing birds in the park emit wavelengths of very specific size and frequency which are picked up by your ears, and you end up experiencing the bird's song.


Our sense of touch is also facilitated by mechanoreception. Specially designed receptor cells under the skin are designed to sense the slightest amount of pressure. We also have thermoreceptor cells under our skin which are able to detect temperature related to touch and temperature and convert that information into information that the brain can use. Remember that warm spring day? Thanks to both of these types of receptors, we can feel the soft grass and the warmth of the sun simultaneously.

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Additional Activities

Sensation Activities

Activity 1:

We do not usually spend much time thinking about or noticing our sensory systems, we simply take them for granted. For this activity, you need to find an interesting place in which to spend 25 minutes. It could be outside in a park, at a coffee house, or any place you feel that there is sensory input that is interesting to you. Go to that location and focus on one of the five senses for each five-minute segment of the 25 minutes you spend there. Write down all of the sensations you experience. For example, for the first five minutes, you can focus on smell. Really tune into your olfactory system and write down every experience of smell you have. For the next five minutes, write down all of the sounds you hear. Continue to do this with each of your five senses. When you have completed this 25-minute exercise, write a paragraph about your experience, focusing on any aspect of it that may have surprised you.

Activity 2:

It is easy to take our five senses for granted if we have never experienced life without them. For this activity, you need to choose one sense and spend time without that sense for at least an hour, depending on the sense you choose. For example, you could choose vision, and wear a blindfold for an hour. You could choose hearing and wear noise-cancelling headphones for a few hours. You could choose your sense of smell and wear a nose plug all day. Afterward, write a 1–2 paragraph essay on this experience. Was it more difficult than you expected? Easier than you expected? Were there any surprises that you experienced (e.g., plugging your nose may result in a decrease in taste)?

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