Sensation is the process by which physical energy from objects in the world or in the body stimulates the sense organs. The brain interprets and organizes this sensory information in a process called perception. Psychophysics is the study of how the physical properties of stimuli relate to people’s experience of stimuli. Research in psychophysics has revealed much information about the acuity of the senses.

Measuring the Senses

Psychologists assess the acuity of the senses in three ways:

  1. Measuring the absolute threshold
  2. Measuring the difference threshold
  3. Applying signal detection theory

The absolute threshold is the minimum amount of stimulation required for a person to detect the stimulus 50 percent of the time. The difference threshold is the smallest difference in stimulation that can be detected 50 percent of the time. The difference threshold is sometimes called the just noticeable difference (jnd), and it depends on the strength of the stimulus.

Example: If someone were comparing two weak stimuli, such as two very slightly sweet liquids, he’d be able to detect quite a small difference in the amount of sweetness. However, if he were comparing two intense stimuli, such as two extremely sweet liquids, he could detect only a much bigger difference in the amount of sweetness.

Researchers use signal detection theory to predict when a weak signal will be detected. This theory considers the fact that the ability to detect a signal depends not only on the strength of the signal but also on the perceiver’s experience, motivation, expectation, and degree of alertness. Different people respond differently to the same signal, and the same person may detect a particular signal at one time but not another. Furthermore, people can often detect one type of signal in a sensory modality such as hearing or vision but be oblivious to other types of signals in the same sensory modality.

Sensory Adaptation

When people walk into a restaurant, they probably notice food smells right away. However, as they sit in the restaurant, the smells gradually become less noticeable. This phenomenon occurs because of sensory adaptation. Sensory adaptation is the decrease in sensitivity to an unchanging stimulus. The smells don’t disappear—the people just become less sensitive to them.

Development of the Senses

Babies have all the basic sensory abilities and many perceptual skills, but these abilities develop and grow more sensitive over time. Babies can recognize the difference between a human voice and other sounds, and they can locate a sound’s origin. They can recognize the difference between smells and, very early on, can recognize their mother’s particular smell. As for taste, they can differentiate between sweet and salty. Babies also have fairly adept visual abilities. Soon after birth, they can distinguish objects of different colors and sizes. When they are just a few weeks old, they begin to differentiate among contrasts, shadows, and patterns, and they can perceive depth after just a few months.

Sensitive Periods

Even innate perceptual skills need the right environment to develop properly. A lack of certain experiences during sensitive periods of development will impair a person’s ability to perceive the world.

Example: People who were born blind but regain their vision in adulthood usually find the visual world confusing. Since these adults were blind in infancy, they missed the sensory experiences necessary for their visual system to develop fully.

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