We explain this process by which we encode and process stimuli.
We interpret and understand the world around us thanks to the fact that we are able to feel and perceive.
Sensory perception is the process by which we receive the information of sensory stimuli from our senses so that it can be encoded and processed later in our brain and finally we can generate a conscious perceptual experience.
In this article we explain what sensory perception is, what its main components are and how the sensory and perceptual processes are organized from birth.
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What is sensory perception?
Sensory perception or sensory perception is a process through which we capture stimuli from our environment so that they can be processed and interpreted at the brain level.
We perceive what surrounds us and we interpret the world thanks to our senses, which transform the received electrochemical signals and transmit them as nerve impulses to the neuronal centers for sensory processing (transduction process).
The interpretation we make of the stimuli we perceive is neither neutral nor based solely on the physical characteristics of our surroundings. Our expectations, beliefs and prior knowledge influence how we finally perceive a particular object or phenomenon.
Sensory perception, as its name suggests, consists of two parts: sensation and perception. Sensation is a neurophysiological process that involves the reception of information (through sensory receptors distributed throughout the body) that comes from our own body and the environment.
There are different types of sensations: the interoceptive ones, which inform us of the internal processes of our own organism through organs such as the viscera, and modulate our moods; the proprioceptive ones, which help us to know how to position our body in space, seeking information on posture or movement; and the exteroceptive ones, which provide us with data from the environment through the senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing).
All our experiences are based on sensory processes, and in every sensation there is a physical component (a stimulus), a physiological component (reception of the stimulus and transmission of the impulse) and a psychological component (brain processing and awareness). Sensation becomes perception when our brain encodes, interprets and makes sense of sensory data.
For its part, the perception process is developed in three phases: first, the sensory information is received; second, there is a process of discrimination and selection of sensory data, which access our consciousness; and third, the areas in charge of sensory processing are in charge of interpreting and processing, based on acquired knowledge and previous experiences, the sensory data, combining the information received with that previously acquired and generating a conscious perceptual experience.
Sensory perception is, therefore, a process in which sensory and perceptual processing concur, both necessary for us to configure a coherent and accessible reality.
Sensory organization refers to the way we capture stimuli through our senses, how they are transmitted to the brain and where sensations are registered. Practically from the moment we are born, the senses are functional and allow us to access the sensory information that surrounds us through stimulation and action.
Around 5 or 6 months, babies already perceive the world in a similar way to how adults do. One of the most important characteristics of sensory perception, and in this case of sensory organization, is that the reception of information from the senses is combined and coordinated in order to generate the most complete sensory and perceptual experience.
Sensory organization follows the following stages:
Triggering effects : a sense receives information from a stimulus and requests the cooperation of the other senses.
Simultaneous effects : a single stimulus causes several senses to intervene at the same time.
Inhibitory effects : several senses act at first and, selectively, one or more senses are inhibited.
The perceptual organization
Within sensory perception, perceptual organization refers to the way our brain structures, interprets and encodes sensory information to give it coherence and meaning.
This information can be determined by the following aspects: those of a physiological nature, such as the quality of the sensory receptors, the person’s state of mind, their age, etc .; those of a psychological nature, such as motivation, expectations or cultural context; and those of a mechanical nature, such as the intensity of the stimulus.
Our perceptual system develops following a series of guidelines. Below are the main perceptual systems:
1. Visual perception
Vision is limited at birth (infants do not see, but can perform visual examinations), and it becomes effective and functional relatively quickly. Newborns preferentially discriminate certain stimuli that, for them, are more attractive; for example, the brightest, those that move, those that have colors or those that produce sounds.
These visual preferences are innate, which means that the perceptual system is conditioned from birth to attend to certain stimuli in front of others, and thanks to this evolutionary mechanism children can self-regulate their own perceptual development, spontaneously choosing the experiences of more appropriate learning.
2. Auditory perception
The processes of auditory sensory perception are similar to those of vision. The newborn does not usually hear, although the ear will gradually refine its capacity, making the baby sensitive to the intensity of sounds. Loud, shrill noises make them upset, and sounds like their mother’s voice or soothing music soothe them.
As in visual perception, children show a preference for certain sounds over others, especially the human voice. At 3 or 4 months they are able to identify voices, and to recognize their mother’s. Complete hearing maturity occurs around 4-5 months.
3. Olfactory perception
Smell is one of the most and best developed senses from birth. Children have a preference for pleasant smells (they turn their heads towards them) and are capable of detecting unpleasant or harmful odors. They also tend to show a preference for smells such as breast milk or the mother’s body odor.
During the first months, the infant memorizes many of the smells that it picks up from the environment. And although the olfactory capacity has been important in evolutionary development, this capacity has been lost over time due to a lack of stimulation of the same, to the detriment of the hearing or visual capacity.
4. Taste perception
From birth, what happens with auditory and visual perception also happens in the case of taste perception. Babies have a preference for more pleasant flavors (sweet), over less pleasant ones (salty or bitter).
It should be noted that the sense of taste is the most specialized of all. We have more than 10,000 taste buds and we are able to detect 4 flavors and multiple sensations (rough, white, dry, hard, etc.).
Research carried out in children has also been able to study the reaction of infants to increased glucose concentration in food, proving that they also react with a taste preference in these cases.
5. Tactile perception
Sensory processing of tactile stimuli is essential from the moment we are born, since we are able to interpret reality through our skin and contact with the outside. Normally, this first contact is usually with the mother’s skin (through caresses and cuddles), which generates a strong emotional bond and a great sensory-perceptual experience.
Through skin contact, the child is able to capture vibrations and generate conscious experiences and feelings that play a fundamental role in the construction and socio-affective development. The stimulation of touch is, therefore, essential for the child to form a mental image of his environment and to begin to build his particular reality.
Merleau-Ponty, M., & Cabanes, J. (1975). Phenomenology of perception (p. 475). Barcelona: Peninsula.
Prieto, RM, & Percepcion, SY (2009). The development of Sensoperception. Digital Innovation and Educational Experiences Magazine, 15, 117.