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Psychology: Sensation and Perception


Sensation and perception are distinct, interlinked, and complementary processes that enable people to interact with and interpret the world. The former denotes a sensory receptor’s stimulation resulting in the production of nerve impulses, which travel to the brain for subsequent interpretation as visual images, pain, touch, sound, odor, or taste through transduction. However, perception is the organization of information obtained from the neural impulses for translation, rationalization, and meaning assignment. This implies that senses convert real-world signals into electrical messages, which are decoded by the brain into conscious experiences. A striking disparity between the two is that sensation is the physiological trigger of perception. However, perceptual experiences are pervasively influenced by an individual’s past, which magnifies their attention to particular signals, organizes, and decodes messages in specific ways (Snyder et al., 2015). Consequently, past events predispose a person to notice some aspects of a situation or an object while disregarding other details. Since past occurrences and lessons constitute a substantial proportion of new experiences, they influence the evaluation of the present situations and contribute to prejudices and discriminatory tendencies.

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Link Between Sensation and Perception

Sensation and perception are independent but closely related processes. The former denotes the input obtained by sensory receptors from the physical world while the latter is the action through which the brain selects, categorizes, and synthesizes the sensation triggered by external stimulation. This implies that the senses are the physiological foundations of perception (Lindberg, 2015). When a sensory receptor is electrically stimulated, it generates neural impulses or signals which travel to the brain where they are decoded, interpreted, and assigned meaning. For instance, the brain decrypts neural alerts and interprets them as an image, sound, taste, or pain. From this dimension, sensation and perception are complementary activities, working together to identify and comprehend stimuli-related information. Peters et al. (2017) note that without sensations, perception is incomprehensive and unachievable, depicting the two functions’ inseparability. Conversely, in the absence of perception, sensations would be unknown since there would be no mental processing of external stimuli’ signals. Despite their close relations, sensation and perception are entirely distinct activities.

Central Distinctions Between Sensation and Perception

Although sensation and perception are connected and play a complementary role in interpreting phenomena, they are distinct in the way they process information. For sensation, the physical stimuli, alongside their detectable properties, are registered by sensory organs, decoding and transforming the information into neural signals or impulses transported to the brain. In this regard, sensation encompasses all activities people receive detectable inputs from the external environment. However, perception entails the selection, identification, synthesis, interpretation, and subsequent assignment of meaning to the registered messages (Albright, 2015). For instance, seeing a bright flame precedes the determination that it could be emitting dangerous heat. While the sensation is a bottom-up procedure, where sensory organs dispatch messages toward the brain, perception is a top-down activity. Additionally, after the sensory organs record stimulation, they transduce it into neural messages transferable to the brain for processing and decryption. Therefore, the sensation is the antecedent to perception, and the former synthesizes externally triggered information, while the latter interprets and determines the meaning of the sensation.

How Perceptual Experiences Impact Interpretations of the World

Past experiences and encounters have a strong influence on the way sensory stimuli are processed and perceived. According to Snyder et al. (2015), information received by the senses is often incomplete and ambiguous, but the body’s environmental perception is a unified whole. The concept is achieved by the brain’s ability to reconnect to prior episodes, contextual effects, and previous experiences. Notably, converting particular stimulus energy into neural activity and the subsequent recording as a neural pattern can be altered by preceding events. For instance, continued exposure to specific detectable inputs, such as loud noises, may adjust neural responses and trigger adaptation mechanisms. This occurrence implies that an individual’s absolute threshold increases with perpetual exposure to a given situation. Jacklin et al. (2016) posit that persistent subjection to events or objects leads to additional efficient behavioral responses. Therefore, the cortical representation of stimuli is dynamic and reflects past experiences.

Additionally, perceptual experiences integrate representational content, playing a principal role in interpreting and justifying global beliefs. Sensory awareness acquaints people with the occurrences around them, constitutes a significant proportion of their beliefs, and forms perceptual judgment. The degree of consciousness and responses is dependent on the predictions about the world based on historical experiences. The brain recreates the sensations experienced the last time a person was in a similar situation and initiates a relative reaction through effective realism. Fridman et al. (2019) posit that a police officer’s decision in any given situation is driven by historical contexts. For instance, a police officer may misinterpret a non-threatening object as a weapon by recreating a tragic event, which occurred when the item was a real gun. Therefore, perceptual experiences shape people’s interpretations of the world.

How Perceptual Sets Create Prejudice and Discrimination

Perceptual sets predispose people to perceive situations in specific ways. People often recognize specific attributes of a situation or object by ignoring other features. Chen et al. (2019) argue that the environment generates more information than our sensory system can fully process at a time. As a result, people select the relevant and disregard the irrelevant information, effectively aiding in constructing particular patterns of social realities. These habits determine the stimuli acquiring the greatest attention, based on previously-gathered information, expectations, beliefs, motivations, and even culture.

Persistent presentation of blacks in violent confrontations with the police on television entrenches strong disapproval, prejudice, and discrimination against dark-skinned individuals as potentially dangerous. The pattern may predispose individuals to stereotype and pigeonhole all people of color based on what they have watched on television. Consequently, the pre-conceived generalizations expose individuals to overlook the differences between blacks based on television portrayals. If they encounter a man of color on the streets, they may feel insecure based on what they saw on television. The mental template created by such experiences will affect the way people view and relate to blacks. Therefore, the perceptual sets have the potential of generating prejudices and discriminatory behavior.

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Sensation and perception are fundamental physiological processes whose effect transcends beyond comprehending the occurrences in the surroundings. Although they are distinct and autonomous, both concepts are interlinked and function complementarily to enable world experiences through skin, tongue, ears, nose, and eyes. The sensation is the preceding neurobiological impact stemming from stimulated sensory transducers, while perception is the mental synthesis and association of a given sensation to a particular stimulus or object. Perceptual experiences are the recreated images, which are mentally accumulated over time. Therefore, these encounters play an integral role in developing prejudices and discrimination.


Albright, T. D. (2015). Perceiving. Daedalus, 144(1), 22−41. Web.

Chen, J., Leber, A. B., & Golomb, J. D. (2019). Attentional capture alters feature perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(11), 1443−1454. Web.

Fridman, J., Barrett, L., Wormwood, J., & Quigley, K. (2019). Applying the theory of constructed emotion to police decision making. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1−12. Web.

Jacklin, D., Cloke, J., Potvin, A., Garrett, I., & Winters, B. (2016). The dynamic multisensory engram: neural circuitry underlying crossmodal object recognition in rats changes with the nature of object experience. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(4), 1273−1289. Web.

Lindberg B. S. (2015). Physiology of the senses − A prominent area of science in Uppsala at the end of the nineteenth century. Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences, 120(2), 78–89. Web.

Peters, M., Kentridge, R., Phillips, I., & Block, N. (2017). Does unconscious perception really exist? Continuing the ASSC20 debate. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2017(1), 1−11. Web.

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Snyder, J. S., Schwiedrzik, C. M., Vitela, A. D., & Melloni, L. (2015). How previous experience shapes perception in different sensory modalities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 594. Web.

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