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Chapter 5: Sensation and Reality

In general, how do sensory systems function?

• Sensory organs transduce physical energies into nerve impulses.
o Transducer: A device that converts energy from one system into energy
in another.
• Because of selectivity, limited sensitivity, feature detection, and coding patterns,
the senses act as data reduction systems.
o Feature Detector: A sensory system highly attuned to a specific stimulus
o Data Reduction System: Any system that selects, analyzes, or condenses
• Sensory response can be partially understood in terms of localization of function
in the brain.
o Sensory Localization: The principle that the type of sensation
experienced is related to the area of the brain activated.

What are the limits of our sensory sensitivity?

• The minimum amount of physical energy necessary to produce a sensation
defines the absolute threshold. The amount of change necessary to produce a
just noticeable difference in a stimulus defines a difference threshold. The
study of thresholds and related topics is called psychophysics.
o Psychophysics: Study of the relationship between physical stimuli and the
sensations they evoke in a human observer.
• Threatening or anxiety-provoking stimuli may raise the threshold for recognition,
an effect called perceptual defense.
o Perceptual Defense: Resistance to perceiving threatening or disturbing
• Any stimulus below the level of conscious awareness is said to be subliminal.
There is evidence that subliminal perception occurs, but subliminal advertising
is largely ineffective.

How is vision accomplished?

• The visible spectrum consists of electromagnetic radiation in a narrow range.
o Visual Spectrum: The part of the electromagnetic spectrum to which the
eyes are sensitive.
• The eye is a visual system, not a photographic one. Individual cells in the visual
cortex of the brain act as feature detectors to analyze visual information.
• Four common visual defects are myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia
(farsightedness), presbyopia (loss of accommodation), and astigmatism (defects
in the cornea, lens, or eye that cause some areas of vision to be out of focus).
• The rods and cones are photoreceptors making up the retina of the eye.
o Rods: Visual receptors for dim light that produce only black and white
o Cones: Visual receptors for colors and daylight visual acuity.
• The rods specialize in night vision, seeing black and white, and motion detection.
• The cones, found exclusively in the fovea and otherwise toward the middle of the
eye, specialize in color vision, acuity, and daylight vision.
o Visual Acuity: The sharpness of visual perception.
o Fovea: An area at the center of the retina containing only cones.
• Much peripheral vision is supplied by the rods.
o Peripheral Vision: Vision at the edges of the visual field.

How do we perceive colors?

• The rods and cones differ in color sensitivity. Yellowish green is brightest for
cones, blue-green for the rods (although they will see it as colorless). Color vision
is explained by the trichomatic theory in the retina and by the opponent-process
theory in the visual system beyond the eyes.
o Trichomatic Theory: Theory of color vision based on three cone types:
red, green, and blue. Other colors result from combinations of these three.
Black and white sensations are produced by rods.
o Opponent Process Theory: Theory of color vision based on three coding
systems (red or green, yellow or blue, black or white).
• Total color blindness is rare, but 8 percent of males and 1 percent of females are
red-green color-weak. Color weakness is a sex-linked trait carried on the X
chromosome. The Ishihara test is used to detect color blindness and color
o Color blindness: A totally inability to perceive colors.
o Color weakness: An inability to distinguish some colors.
o Ishihara Test: A test for color blindness and color weakness.
• Dark adaptation, an increase in sensitivity to light, is caused by increased
concentration of visual pigments in both the rods and the cones but mainly by
rhodopsin recombining in the rods. Vitamin A deficiencies may cause night
o Rhodopsin: The light-sensitive pigment in the rods.
o Night Blindness: Blindness under conditions of low illumination

What are the mechanisms of hearing?

• Sound waves are the stimulus for hearing. They are transduced by the eardrum,
auditory ossicles, oval window, chochlea, and ultimately, hair cells.
o Auditory Ossicles: The three small bones that link the eardrum to the
o Cochlea: The snail-shaped organ that makes up the inner ear.
o Oval Window: A membrane on the cochlea connected to the third
auditory ossicle.
o Hair Cells: Receptor cells within the cochlea that transduce vibrations
into nerve impulses.
• The frequency theory and place theory of hearing together explain how pitch is
o Frequency Theory: Holds that tones up to 4,000 hertz are converted to
nerve impulses that match the frequency of each tone.
o Place Theory: Theory that higher and lower tones excite specific areas of
the cochlea.
• Three basic types of deafness are nerve deafness, conduction deafness, and
stimulus deafness.
o Conduction Deafness: Poor transfer of sounds from the eardrum to the
inner ear.
o Nerve Deafness: Deafness caused by damage to the hair cells or auditory
o Stimulus Deafness: Damage caused by exposing the hair cells to
excessively loud sounds.

How do the chemical senses operate?

• Olfaction (smell) and gustation (taste) are chemical senses responsive to airborne
or liquefied molecules. It is also suspected that humans are sensitive to
pheromones, although the evidence for this sense remains preliminary.
o Pheromone: An airborne chemical signal.
• The lock and key theory partially explains smell. In addition, the location of the
olfactory receptors in the nose helps identify various scents.
o Lock and Key Theory: Holds that odors are related to the shapes of
chemical molecules.
• Sweet and bitter tastes are based on a lock-and-key coding of molecule shapes.
Salty and sour tastes are triggered by a direct flow of ions into taste receptors.

What are the somesthetic senses, and why are they so important?
• The somesthetic senses include the skin senses, vestibular senses, and kinesthetic
senses, (receptors that detect muscle and joint positioning).
o Somesthetic Sense: Sensations produced by the skin, muscles, joints,
viscera, and organs of balance.
o Skin Senses: The senses of touch, pressure, pain, heat, and cold.
o Vestibular Senses: The senses of balance, position in space, and
o Kinesthetic Senses: The sense of body movement and positioning.
• The skin senses include touch, pressure, pain, cold, and warmth. Sensitivity to
each is related to the number of receptors found in an area of skin.
o Skin Receptors: Sensory organs for touch, pressure, pain, cold, and
• Distinctions can be made among various types of pain, including visceral pain,
somatic pain, referred pain, warning pain, and reminding systematic pain.
o Visceral Pain: Pain originating in the internal organs.
o Somatic Pain: Pain from the skin, muscles, joints, and tendons.
o Referred Pain: Pain that is felt in one part of the body but comes from
o Warning Pain: Pain based on large nerve fibers; warns that bodily
damage may be occurring.
o Reminding Pain: Pain based on small nerve fibers; reminds the brain that
the body has been injured.
• Various forms of motion sickness are related to messages received from the
vestibular system, which senses gravity and movement.
• According to sensory conflict theory, motion sickness is often caused by a
mismatch of visual, kinesthetic, and vestibular sensations. Motion sickness can be
avoided by minimizing sensory conflict.

Why are we more aware of some sensations than others?

• Incoming sensations are affected by sensory adaptation (a reduction in the
number of nerve impulses sent), by selective attention (voluntary selection and
diversion of messages in the brain), and by sensory gating, (blocking or alteration
of messages flowing toward the brain).
• Selective gating of pain messages apparently takes place in the spinal cord. Gate
control theory proposes an explanation for many pain phenomena.
o Gate Control Theory: Proposes that pain messages pass through neural
“gates” in the spinal cord.
How can pain be reduced in everyday situations?
• Pain is greatly affected by anxiety, attention, control over stimulus, the
interpretation placed on an experience, and counterirritation. Pain can therefore be
reduced by controlling these factors.
o Anxiety: Apprehension or uneasiness similar to fear but based on an
unclear threat.
o Control: Where pain is concerned, control refers to an ability to regulate
the pain stimulus.
o Attention: Voluntarily focusing on a specific sensory input.
o Interpretation: Where pain is concerned, the meaning given to a stimulus
o Counterirritation: Using mild pain to block more intense or long-lasting

What is synesthesia? What does it reveal about sensory systems?

• In synesthesia, stimulating one sense also causes sensations in another sense. The
most common form of synesthesia is color-hearing, in which sounds also produce
sensations of color.
• Synesthesia reveals that the senses obey similar laws of intensity, size, and
quality. Also, the senses typically work in a unified fashion, even for
o Synesthete: A person who experiences synesthesia.

Additional Vocabulary:
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o Sensory Analysis: Separation of sensory information into important
o Perceptual Features: Basic elements of a stimulus such as lines, shapes,
edges, or colors.
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o Sensory Coding: Codes used by the sense organs to transmit information
to the brain.
o Sensation: The immediate response in the brain caused by excitation of a
sensory organ.
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o Weber’s Law: The just noticeable difference is a constant proportion of
the original stimulus intensity.
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o Hue: Classification of colors into basic categories of red, orange, yellow,
green, blue, indigo, and violet.
o Saturation: The degree of a color’s purity.
o Brightness: The intensity of lights or colors.
o Lens: Structure in the eye that focuses light rays.
o Retina: The light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye.
o Cornea: Transparent membrane covering the front of the eye.
o Accommodation: Changes in the shape of the lens of the eye.
o Iris: Circular muscle that controls the amount of light entering the eye.
o Pupil: The opening at the front of the eye through which light passes.
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o Blind Spot: An area of the retina lacking visual receptors.
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o Tunnel Vision: Vision restricted to the center of the visual field.
o Afterimage: Visual sensation that persists after a stimulus is removed.
o Visual Pigments: Light-sensitive chemicals found in the rods and cones.
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o Simultaneous color contrast: Changes in perceived hue that occur when
a colored stimulus is displayed on backgrounds of various colors.
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o Retinal: Part of the chemical compound that makes up rhodopsin (also
known as retinene).
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o Pitch: Higher or lower tones; related to the frequency of sound waves.
o Loudness: The intensity of a sound; determined by the amplitude of
sound waves.
o Pinna: The visible external part of the ear.
o Tympanic Membrane: The eardrum.
o Organ of Corti: Center part of the cochlea, containing hair cells, canals,
and membranes.
o Stereocilia: Bristle-like structures on hair cells.
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o Temporary Threshold Shift: A temporary, partial loss of hearing.
o Tinnitus: A ringing or buzzing sensation in the ears.
o Chemical Senses: Senses, such as smell and taste, that respond to
chemical molecules.
o Ansomia: Loss or impairment of the sense of smell.
o Vomeronasal Organ: A sensory organ sensitive to pheromones in
o Taste Bud: A receptor organ for taste.
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o Phantom Limb: The illusory sensation that a limb still exists after it is
lost through accident or amputation.
o Dynamic Touch: Touch experienced when the body is in motion; a
combination of sensations from skin receptors, muscles, and joints.
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o Otolith Organs: Vestibular structures sensitive to movement,
acceleration, and gravity.
o Semicircular Canals: Fluid-filled canals containing the sensory organs
for balance.
o Crista: A floating structure that responds to fluid movement within the
semicircular canals.
o Ampulla: An enlarged area in a semicircular canal containing a crista.
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o Acupuncture: Chinese medical art of relieving pain and illness by
inserting thin needles into the body.
o Beta-endorphin: A natural, painkilling brain chemical similar to