5.1 Sensation versus Perception
By the end of this section, you will be able to: • Distinguish between sensation and perception • Describe the concepts of absolute threshold and difference threshold • Discuss the roles attention, motivation, and sensory adaptation play in 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, sensation 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).
The sensitivity of a given sensory system to the relevant stimuli can be expressed as an absolute threshold. Absolute threshold refers to the minimum amount of stimulus energy that must be present for the stimulus to be detected 50% of the time. Another way to think about this is by asking how dim can a light be or how soft can a sound be and still be detected half of the time. The sensitivity of our sensory receptors can be quite amazing. It has been estimated that on a clear night, the most sensitive sensory cells in the back of the eye can detect a candle flame 30 miles away (Okawa & Sampath, 2007). Under quiet conditions, the hair cells (the receptor cells of the inner ear) can detect the tick of a clock 20 feet away (Galanter, 1962).
It is also possible for us to get messages that are presented below the threshold for conscious awareness—these are called subliminal messages. A stimulus reaches a physiological threshold when it is strong enough to excite sensory receptors and send nerve impulses to the brain: This is an absolute threshold. A message below that threshold is said to be subliminal: We receive it, but we are not consciously aware of it. Over the years there has been a great deal of speculation about the use of subliminal messages in advertising, rock music, and self-help audio programs. Research evidence shows that in laboratory settings, people can process and respond to information outside of awareness. But this does not mean that we obey these messages like zombies; in fact, hidden messages have little effect on behavior outside the laboratory (Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980; Rensink, 2004; Nelson, 2008; Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, & Gobancé, 2009; Loersch, Durso, & Petty, 2013).
Absolute thresholds are generally measured under incredibly controlled conditions in situations that are optimal for sensitivity. Sometimes, we are more interested in how much difference in stimuli is required to detect a difference between them. This is known as the just noticeable difference (jnd) or difference threshold. Unlike the absolute threshold, the difference threshold changes depending on the stimulus intensity. As an example, imagine yourself in a very dark movie theater. If an audience member were to receive a text message that caused the cell phone screen to light up, chances are that many people would notice the change in illumination in the theater. However, if the same thing happened in a brightly lit arena during a basketball game, very few people would notice. The cell phone brightness does not change, but its ability to be detected as a change in illumination varies dramatically between the two contexts. Ernst Weber proposed this theory of change in difference threshold in the 1830s, and it has become known as Weber’s law: The difference threshold is a constant fraction of the original stimulus, as the example
156 Chapter 5 | Sensation and Perception
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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. Perception refers to the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Perception involves both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing refers to sensory information from a stimulus in the environment driving a process, and top-down processing refers to knowledge and expectancy driving a process, as shown in Figure 5.2 (Egeth & Yantis, 1997; Fine & Minnery, 2009; Yantis & Egeth, 1999).
Figure 5.2 Top-down and bottom-up are ways we process our perceptions.
Imagine that you and some friends are sitting in a crowded restaurant eating lunch and talking. It is very noisy, and you are concentrating on your friend’s face to hear what she is saying, then the sound of breaking glass and clang of metal pans hitting the floor rings out. The server dropped a large tray of food. Although you were attending to your meal and conversation, that crashing sound would likely get through your attentional filters and capture your attention. You would have no choice but to notice it. That attentional capture would be caused by the sound from the environment: it would be bottom-up.
Alternatively, top-down processes are generally goal directed, slow, deliberate, effortful, and under your control (Fine & Minnery, 2009; Miller & Cohen, 2001; Miller & D’Esposito, 2005). For instance, if you misplaced your keys, how would you look for them? If you had a yellow key fob, you would probably look for yellowness of a certain size in specific locations, such as on the counter, coffee table, and other similar places. You would not look for yellowness on your ceiling fan, because you know keys are not normally lying on top of a ceiling fan. That act of searching for a certain size of yellowness in some locations and not others would be top-down—under your control and based on your experience.