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Chapter 5: Sensation

• sensation: the process by which our sensory receptors & nervous systems receive and represent
environmental stimuli
• perception: the process of selecting, organizing, and interpreting sensations
• bottom-up processing; analysis that begins w/ sensory receptors and works up to the brain’s integration of
sensory information
• top-down processing: information processing guided by higher-level mental processes (i.e. when we
construct perceptions drawing on experience & expectations)
Sensing the World: Some Basic Principles
• Psychophysics: the study of relationships between physical characteristics of stimuli (intensity) and
psychological experience
Absolute Thresholds
• absolute thresholds: minimum stimulus necessary to detect a particular stimulus 50% of the time
Signal Detection
• Signal detection theory: a theory predicting how and when we detect the presence of a faint stimulus
(“signal”) amid background stimulation (“noise”). Assumes there is no single absolute threshold &
threshold depends partly on a person’s experience, expectations, motivation, and level of fatigue
• Signal detection theorists seek to understand why people respond differently to same stimuli, and why same
person’s reactions vary as circumstances change
o Soldiers sensing minute sounds during wartime; parents sensing small whimpers from baby but
not louder ones
o People’s ability to detect faint signals diminishes after about 30 minutes – also depends on task,
time of day, exercise, and experience
Subliminal Stimulation
• Subliminal stimuli – those below one’s absolute threshold for conscious awareness
• We can sense stimuli below absolute thresholds by definition, and be affected by stimuli so weak as to be
unnoticed – invisible image/word can prime (activate, unconsciously, certain associations, thus
predisposing perception, memory, or response) response to later question
o Sometimes we feel what we do not know and cannot describe (an imperceptibly brief stimulus
triggers a weak response that can be detected by brain scanning)
o Much of our information processing occurs out of the range of our conscious mind
• Advertisers cannot manipulate humans into subliminal persuasion – subtle, fleeting effect, not powerful,
enduring effect on behavior (people perceive they are receiving benefits, but the messaging has no real
Difference Thresholds
• difference threshold (noticeable difference, or jnd) – the minimum difference a person can detect between
two stimuli half the time
• Weber’s law: the principle that, to be perceived as different, two stimuli must differ by a constant
proportion (10g to 100g vs. 10g to 1kg)
Sensory Adaptation
• sensory adaptation: diminished sensitivity as a consequence of constant stimulation (after constant
exposure, nerve cells fire less frequently)
• This does not work for eyes because they are always moving, quivering enough to guarantee changing
• But if eyes could remain still, sensory adaptation occurs, but parts of the image disappear and reappear in
meaningful units – our perceptions are organized by the meanings our minds impose
• Sensory adaptation allows us to focus on informative changes in environment; we perceive the world not
exactly as it is, but as it is useful for us to perceive it
• Television’s attention-getting power is due to our sensitivity to changing stimulation (cuts, edits, zooms,
• Sensory transduction: process by which sensory systems encode stimulus energy as neural messages
o Ex. Eyes: transducer light energy to neural messages brain processes into what one consciously
The Stimulus Input: Light Energy
• Visible spectrum of light that our eyes see is but a small section of entire electromagnetic spectrum
• Light’s wavelength: distance from one wave peak to he next, determines its hue (the color we experience –
blue or green)
• Intensity, amt. of energy in light waves (determined by wave’s amplitude [height]) influences brightness
The Eye
• Light enters through cornea, which protects the eye and bends light to provide focus, then passes through
pupil (small adjustable opening)
• Amount of light entering the eye regulated by iris (colored muscle surrounding pupil unique to each
individual), which adjusts through dilating and constricting in response to light intensity and inner emotions
• Behind pupil is lens (focuses incoming rays into an image on eye’s back surface) by changing curvature
through accommodation
• Retina: eye’s light-sensitive inner surface on which the rays focus
• Johannes Kepler (1604): retina receives upside-down images of the world
• Research psychologists discovered retina doesn’t read image as a whole; receptor cells convert light energy
into neural impulses, which are constructed in the brain into a perceived, upright image
• Acuity (sharpness of vision) can be affected by small distortion’s in the eye’s shape
• In nearsightedness, eyeball focuses light rays from distant objects in front of the retina
• Farsightedness: light rays from nearby objects reach the retina before they have produced a focused image
• In children, eye can accommodate, but may suffer from eyestrain from overusing muscles
The Retina
• Particles of light go through retina’s outer layer to receptor cells (rods and cones), which produces
chemical changes that generate neural signals, which activate bipolar cells, which activate ganglion cells,
which form the optic nerve (carries info to brain, where thalamus distributes it)
• Blind spot: the spot there are no receptor cells where the optic nerve leaves the eye
• Cones cluster around fovea: retina’s area of central focus (rods share bipolar cells with other rods); also
relay messages to brain through bipolar cells, whose direct connection preserves cones’ precise info
• Cones enable color seeing; rods enable black-and-white vision (useful for faint light)
Visual Information Processing
• Retina encodes & analyze sensory information, then routes it via thalamus to brain’s cortex
• Information from retina’s rods & cones received & transmitted by ganglion cells (optic nerve) to
corresponding location in occipital lobe
• Retinal ells are so responsive that pressure triggers them, though brain interprets firing as light
Feature Detection
• Hubel & Wiesel – visual cortex has feature detector neurons that respond to certain features (edges, lines,
angles, movements), and then pass on info to other areas of cortex that respond to more complex patterns
• Perrett: biologically important objects and events have a vast visual encyclopedia distributed as cells that
respond to certain stimuli
• Other supercell clusters integrate information and fire only when cues collectively indicate direction of
someone’s attention and approach
• Brain activity for perception combines sensory input with assumptions & expectations
• What we see can be broken down into patterns of changing light intensity that can be described
Parallel Processing
• Brain does parallel processing: several aspects of a problem at once (divides visual world into color,
depth, movement, and form
• For recognition: brain neurons synch in emitting equivalent gamma wave signals to achieve conscious
o Destroying this field makes people unable to perceive movement (loss of motion detection)
o Blindsight – blindness in one’s field of vision – shown sticks in the blind spot, patients cannot see
them, but can guess if their characteristics correctly
Color Vision
• Young-Helmholtz trichromatic theory– eye must have three color receptors, one for each primary color
of light (red, green, blue); mixing light is additive color mixing – b/c it adds wavelengths and increases
• Colorblind people are lacking in red- or green-sensitive cones is monochromatic or dichromatic, making it
impossible to distinguish red and green
• Hering: Opponent-process theory: opposing retinal processes (red-green, yellow-blue, white-black)
enable color vision; some cells stimulated by green and inhibited by red, and vice versa
Color Constancy
* Add color constancy
• Hearing: transducing air pressure waves into neural messages (sound)
• Audition – highly adaptive, with those in frequencies in human voice range heard best, sensitive to faint
sounds (required for ancestors’ survival in hunting and taking care of children)
• It is easy to detect differences among thousands of human voices – after events stimulate ear receptors,
neurons coordinate in extracting features, compare w past experience & identify stimulus
The Stimulus Input: Sound Waves
• A sound comes in waves – jostling molecules of air bumping into the next like ripples on a pond
• Ears detect brief air pressure changes; hearing is a special form of touch sensation), then transform it into
nerve impulses, which our brain decodes as sounds
• Strength (amplitude) of sound waves determines their loudness
• Waves vary in length (frequency), which determines the pitch we experience – low frequencies and low
pitch; short waves have high frequency and high pitch (ex. Piccolo produces shorter, faster sound waves
than a tuba)
• Absolute threshold for hearing = 0 decibels; prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can produce
hearing loss
The Ear
• To convert sound waves into neural activity, the visible outer ear channels the sound waves through the
auditory canal to the eardrum (tight membrane that vibrates with the waves)
• Middle ear transmits eardrum’s vibrations through a piston made of three tiny bones (hammer, anvil, and
stirrup) to the cochlea (snail-shaped tube in inner ear)
• Incoming vibrations cause the cochlea’s membrane (oval window) to vibrate, jostling fluid that fills the
tube, which causes ripples in the basilar membrane, which bends the hair cells with which it is lined, which
triggers impulses in adjacent nerve fibers, which form he auditory nerve
• Messages via thalamus are sent to temporal lobe’s auditory cortex
• Damage to hair cells account for most hearing loss; they are supersensitive thanks to a protein at its tip
whose alertness can trigger a neural response
• Hair cells are delicate and fragile; blasted with loud sounds, their cilia will wither or fuse
• Loudness is detected from number of activated hair cells (soft, pure tone activates only few hair cells
attuned to its frequency)
• Hair cells in hard-of-hearing people only lose sensitivity to soft sounds, but retain responses to loud ones
o Helping deafer people here requires compression of sounds – harder-to-hear sounds are amplified
more than loud sounds
How Do We Perceive Pitch?
• Helmholtz’s place theory (explains hearing of high-pitched sounds): we hear different pitches bc different
sound waves trigger activity at different places along cochlea’s basilar membrane
o Brain can determine sound’s pitch by recognizing place on membrane from which it receives
neural signals
• Frequency theory (explains our hearing low pitches): basilar membrane vibrates w incoming sound wave,
triggering neural impulses to the brain at the same rate as sound wave
o Volley principle: neural cells can alternate firing to achieve a combined frequency above
How Do We Locate Sounds?
• Placement of our ears allows stereophonic (3D) hearing – through intensity and time of sound arrival in
each ear
• We do not do well locating a sound equidistant from our ears (ahead, behind, overhead, beneath us)
because sounds strike two ears simultaneously
• Brain uses parallel processing to process sound as well
Hearing Loss and Deaf Culture
• Conduction hearing loss: problems w mechanical system that conducts sound waves to cochlea
(punctured eardrum or bones of middle ear damaged)
• Sensorineural hearing loss (nerve deafness): damage to the cochlea’s hair cell receptors or associated
o Usually caused by heredity, aging, prolonged exposure to loud noise/music
• Hearing aids amplify vibrations for frequencies (high frequencies) for weakest frequencies or by
compressing sound
Cochlear Implants
• cochlear implant: restores hearing for people w nerve deafness, translating sounds into electrical signals
(wired into cochlear nerves) convey info to brain
• Hearing parents advocate for cochlear implants; Deaf culture advocates object to using implants because
deafness is not a disability (native signers are not disabled), though children who learn only ASL have
difficulty later learning to read and write
Sensory Compensation
• Deaf culture says deafness = vision enhancement
• Many deaf are visually skilled engineers, architects mathematicians bc of visual compensation
• People with aphasia (lost ability to express language) – become more accurate at spotting face and body
clues for deception
Other Important Senses
• Touch is essential to development – helps produce growth hormone, metabolic rate
• Touch is a mixture between pressure, warmth, cold, pain
o Only pressure has identifiable receptors
• Stroking adjacent pressure spots creates a tickle, repeated gentle stroking of a pain spot creates an itching
sensation, touching adjacent cold & pressure spots triggers a sense of wetness (touching dry, cold metal),
and stimulating nearby cold & warmth spots produces hot sensation
• Top-down influence on touch sensation – others’ tickles evoke more neural activity than own, and rubber
hand stimulation will produce the illusion of your own hand being touched
• Pain is body’s way of telling you something has gone wrong and to change behavior immediately
• Illness-related hyperalgesia – extreme sensitivity to something generally mildly painful
Biological, Psychological, and Social-Cultural Influences on Pain
• Pain is a property of expectations, experiences, attention, and culture
o Rubber hand, phantom sensations in amputated limbs (as with sight, sound, taste) – indicate brain
can misinterpret spontaneous central nervous system activity that occurs in the absence of normal
sensory input
• Melzack & Wall – gate-control theory: spinal cord contains a neurological “gate” that blocks pain signals
or allows them to pass to brain – opened by activity to pain signals traveling up small nerve fibers (pain
signals) & closed by activity in larger fibers (that conduct other sensory signals) or information coming
from brain
• One way to treat chronic pain – stimulate (massage, acupuncture) “gate-closing” activity in large neural
fibers; creating competing stimulation to block pain messages
• Pain gate can be closed by info from brain – ex. Endorphin release; people w/ gene that boosts endorphins
less bothered by pain
• Social influences on pain: People perceive more pain & endure it less when others seem to be experiencing
it; while feeling pain empathy, person’s brain mirrors pained brain
• Memories of pain: people overlook duration, focus on peak moment and end of pain
o Better to taper down a painful procedure than switch it off abruptly
Pain Control
• Pain should be treated by physically & psychologically through acupuncture, massage, exercise, hypnosis,
• Lamaze method of childbirth: relaxation, counterstimulation (massage), distraction
• Diverting the brain’s attention brings relief: pleasant view in hospitals, 3D virtual reality both help to
distract patients
• Taste’s sensations include umami (in MSG)
• Pleasureful tastes attract us to energy-rich foods that enabled ancestors’ survival
• Aversive tastes deter us from new foods that might be toxic
o 2-6yr olds are fussy eaters because meat & plant toxins were both sources of food poisoning for
ancestral children
• Taste is chemical: inside tongue bumps – 200+ taste buds, each with a pore that catches food chemicals;
molecules are sensed by 50-100 taste receptor cells’ hairs
• Taste receptors reproduce every 1-2wks, but decrease in number and sensitivity with age
• Smell changes perception of taste – a food’s odor enhances our perception of its characteristics
• Sensory interaction: one sense may influence another (smell of food influencing taste; smell + texture +
taste = flavor; rubber hand)
o McGurk Effect: see a speaker saying one syllable while hearing another, we may perceive a third
syllable that blends both inputs
• Synaesthesia – one sensation (hearing sound) produces another (seeing color)
• Smell is a chemical sense – when molecules of substance in air reach cluster of 5 million receptor cells at
top of each nasal cavity that respond selectively and alert brain through axon fibers
• Olfactory receptors recognize odors individually and are embedded in nasal cavity neurons
• Some odors trigger a combination of receptors – producing 10000 distinguishable odors
• Each person has a signature scent
• Attractiveness of smells depends on learned associations; we have a capacity to remember long-forgotten
odors and their associated emotions
Body Position and Movement
• Kinesthesis: system for sensing the position and movement of individual body parts
• Vestibular sense: monitor’s head’s and body’s position and movement; biological gyroscopes for this
equilibrium are in the ear
o Semicircular canals (pretzel) and vestibular sacs (connect canals w cochlea) contain fluid that
moves when head rotates or tilts, which simulates hairlike receptors that send messages to
cerebellum, thus enabling sensing body position & maintaining balance