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To study sensation is to study an ageless question: How does the world out there get
represented in here, inside our heads? Put another way, how are the external stimuli that
strike our bodies transformed into messages that our brains comprehend?p

Each species comes equipped with sensitivities that enable it to survive and thrive. We
sense only a portion of the sea of energy that surrounds us, but to this portion we are
exquisitely sensitive. Our absolute threshold for any stimulus is the minimum stimulation
necessary for us to detect it 50 percent of the time. Signal detection researchers report that
our individual absolute thresholds vary with our psychological state.p

Experiments reveal that we can process some information from stimuli too weak to
recognize. But the restricted conditions under which this occurs would not enable
unscrupulous opportunists to exploit us with subliminal messages.p

To survive and thrive, an organism must have difference thresholds low enough to detect
minute changes in important stimuli. In humans, a difference threshold (also called a just
noticeable difference, or jnd) increases in proportion to the size of the stimulus²a principle
known as Weber¶s law.p

Sensory Adaptationp
Sensory adaptation refers to our ability to adapt to unchanging stimuli. For example, when
we smell an odor in a room we¶ve just entered and remain in that room for a period of time,
the odor will no longer be easily detected. The phenomenon of sensory adaptation focuses
our attention on informative changes in stimulation by diminishing our sensitivity to
constant or routine odors, sounds, and touches.p


Each sense receives stimulation, transduces it into neural signals, and sends these neural
messages to the brain. We have glimpsed how this happens with vision.p

The Stimulus Input: Light Energyp

The energies we experience as visible light are a thin slice from the broad spectrum of
electromagnetic radiation. The hue and brightness we perceive in a light depend on the
wavelength and intensity.p

The Eyep
After entering the eye and being focused by a camera-like lens, light waves strike the retina.
The retina¶s light-sensitive rods and color-sensitive cones convert the light energy into
neural impulses, which are coded by the retina before traveling along the optic nerve to the

Visual Information Processingp

In the cortex, individual neurons called feature detectors, respond to specific features of a
visual stimulus, and their information is pooled for interpretation by higher-level brain cells.
Sub-dimensions of vision (color, movement, depth, and form) are processed separately and
simultaneously, illustrating the brain¶s capacity for parallel processing. The visual pathway
faithfully represents retinal stimulation, but the brain¶s representation incorporates our
assumptions, interests, and expectations.p

Color Visionp
Research on how we see color supports two nineteenth-century theories. First, as the
Young-Helmholtz trichromatic (three-color) theory suggests, the retina contains three types
of cones. Each is most sensitive to the wavelengths of one of the three primary colors of
light (red, green, or blue). Second, as opponent-process theory maintains, the nervous
system codes the color-related information from the cones into pairs of opponent colors, as
demonstrated by the phenomenon of afterimages and as confirmed by measuring opponent
processes within visual neurons of the thalamus. The phenomenon of color constancy under
varying illumination shows that our brains construct our experience of color.p


The Stimulus Input: Sound Wavesp

The pressure waves we experience as sound vary in frequency and amplitude, and
correspondingly in perceived pitch and loudness.p

The Earp
Through a mechanical chain of events, sound waves traveling through the auditory canal
cause minuscule vibrations in the eardrum. Transmitted via the bones of the middle ear to
the fluid-filled cochlea, these vibrations create movement in tiny hair cells, triggering neural
messages to the brain.p

Research on how we hear pitch supports both the place theory, which best explains the
sensation of high-pitched sounds, and frequency theory, which best explains the sensation
of low-pitched sounds. We localize sound by detecting minute differences in the intensity
and timing of the sounds received by each ear.p

Hearing Loss and Deaf Culturep

Hearing losses linked to conduction and nerve disorders can be caused by prolonged
exposure to loud noise and by diseases and age-related disorders. Those who live with
hearing loss face social challenges. Cochlear implants can enable some hearing for deaf
children and most adults. But Deaf Culture advocates, noting that Sign is a complete
language, question the enhancement. Additionally, deafness can lead to sensory
compensation where other senses are enhanced. Advocates feel that this furthers their view
that deafness is not a disability.p


Our sense of touch is actually four senses²pressure, warmth, cold, and pain²that combine
to produce other sensations, such as "hot." One theory of pain is that a "gate" in the spinal
cord either opens to permit pain signals traveling up small nerve fibers to reach the brain,
or closes to prevent their passage. Because pain is both a physiological and a psychological
phenomenon, it often can be controlled through a combination of physical and psychological

Taste, a chemical sense, is likewise a composite of five basic sensations²sweet, sour, salty,
bitter, and umami²and of the aromas that interact with information from the taste buds.
The influence of smell on our sense of taste is an example of sensory interaction.p

Like taste, smell is a chemical sense, but there are no basic sensations for smell, as there
are for touch and taste. Unlike the retina¶s receptor cells that sense color by breaking it into
component parts, the 5 million olfactory receptor cells with their 1000 different receptor
proteins recognize individual odor molecules. Some odors trigger a combination of receptors.
Like other stimuli, odors can spontaneously evoke memories and feelings.p

Body Position and Movementp

Finally, our effective functioning requires a kinesthetic sense, which notifies the brain of the
position and movement of body parts, and a sense of equilibrium, which monitors the
position and movement of the whole body.p