In psychology, sensation refers to the unique process of how people receive information through their senses, which include touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing.
Essentially, the sensation is the ability of human sensory organs to convert stimuli such as light, sound waves, and temperature into neural impulses that a brain can interpret, in a process known as transduction.
This information is then processed and organized into meaningful patterns so humans can understand it.
When you spot a gorgeous red rose while walking in a garden, the experience begins with the reflection of light from the flower. This light subsequently enters your eyes and activates the photoreceptors present in your retina.
The photoreceptors transmit signals to your brain, where they are processed and interpreted as the perception of a stunning red rose.
So, sensation means the ability to perceive and interpret sensory stimuli meaningfully.
Definition of Sensation
Sensation refers to the process by which our sensory organs and nerves respond to external stimuli, resulting in a concrete, conscious experience.
According to Sanderson and Huffman (2023),
“Sensation is the process by which we detect and convert (transduce) raw sensory data from our body and the environment, and then transmit it to our brain” (p. 174).
The process of sensation in psychology includes identifying, communicating, and interpreting stimuli from our surroundings.
As Gadhvi and Waseem (2020) state:
“from the soft touch of the child to the painful punch of a boxer, all the daily activities carry associations with sensations” (p. 1).
Specialized neurons called sensory receptors detect sensory information, which then transmits it to the brain, processing and interpreting for conscious experience.
Human senses allow us to receive information through vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And our brain uses this information to help us understand and interact with the world (Gadhvi & Waseem, 2020).
Understanding sensation is crucial for psychologists as it provides insights into how our brains interpret and process external stimuli (Rajamanickam, 2007).
For example, they can create ways to help people with sensory impairments like blindness or deafness by studying sensory systems. This also helps them understand how sensory information affects our perceptions and actions.
Simply, sensation is the process of perceiving and interpreting sensory information meaningfully.
18 Examples of Sensation
- Seeing a red apple on a table: When we see the bright red color of the apple through our eyes, the sensory receptors in the retina detect this visual stimulus and transform it into neural signals that get sent to the brain for interpretation.
- Hearing a musical note: Sound waves created by a musical note travel through the air and enter our ears. The cochlea in our inner ear has hair cells that detect sound waves and convert them into electrical signals. These signals are then sent to the brain, translating them into sound perception.
- Experiencing pain: When we accidentally touch a hot surface or experience an injury, our body’s pain receptors, known as nociceptors, are activated. These nociceptors send signals to the brain, which interprets the information as the sensation of pain.
- Feeling the sun’s warmth on our skin: Our skin receptors are able to detect heat from the sun and send a signal to the brain, which helps us feel the sensation of warmth on our skin.
- Tasting the spiciness of chili peppers: When we eat spicy foods, the compound capsaicin found in chili peppers stimulates our taste receptors, particularly those that respond to heat and pain. This information is sent to the brain, resulting in the perception of spiciness.
- Tasting our favorite food: When we eat food, our tongue’s taste buds detect different flavors – sweet, sour, salty, or bitter – and send this information to the brain for us to experience the taste.
- Feeling the vibrations of a cellphone: When our cellphone is set to vibrate, the vibrations are detected by mechanoreceptors in our skin. These receptors send the information to our brain, which interprets the sensation as the feeling of vibration.
- Smelling freshly baked bread: When odor molecules of bread enter our nose, sensory receptors in the nasal epithelium detect these molecules and transmit the information to the brain, allowing us to perceive the unique aroma of fresh bread.
- Experiencing a tickle: When our skin is lightly touched or stroked, specific sensory receptors called Merkel cells are stimulated. These receptors send signals to the brain, which interprets the sensation as ticklishness.
- Feeling the softness of a pillow: The sensation of softness is perceived by our brain when sensory receptors in the skin detect the pressure and texture of a soft pillow and transmit this information.
- Feeling a change in atmospheric pressure: When we experience a change in atmospheric pressure, such as during a change in altitude or weather, our inner ear’s pressure-sensitive receptors detect these changes and send signals to the brain, leading to the sensation of pressure in the ears.
- The sensation of thirst: When our body is low on fluids, sensory receptors in the mouth and throat transmit information to the brain, interpreted as the sensation of thirst.
- Sensing the passage of time: Our internal circadian rhythm, which is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain, helps us perceive the passage of time (this is an example of internal stimulus). This allows us to experience sensations such as feeling tired at night or refreshed in the morning.
- Feeling a gentle breeze: Our skin’s sensory receptors detect the pressure changes caused by the wind when it blows against us, and our brain interprets it as the sensation of touch.
- Experiencing hunger: When our body needs energy, our stomach and intestine send hormonal and neural signals to the brain, which interprets the information as the sensation of hunger.
- Hearing someone’s voice: When someone speaks, sound waves propagate through the air and enter our ears, where the auditory system detects them. In such a way, we can hear and understand their voice.
- Feeling an itch: When an irritant or allergen comes into contact with our skin, specialized nerve cells called pruriceptors send signals to the brain. The brain then interprets these signals as the sensation of itching, prompting us to scratch the affected area.
- The sensation of falling: When we are outdoors and we suddenly fall, sensory receptors in our ears and body detect a sudden change in acceleration or movement, which is perceived by the brain as the sensation of falling.
Types of Sensation
There are five main types of sensation identified by psychologists based on the five sensory systems: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
Here is a detailed explanation of each of the types:
1. Visual Sensation
Visual sensation involves detecting and interpreting light waves that enter the eyes. The photoreceptors in our eyes convert light waves into electrical signals that travel to the brain through the optic nerve where they are encoded and interpreted.
Visual sensation enables us to perceive objects’ color, shape, movement, and depth in our environment (Mather, 2011).
2. Auditory Sensation
Auditory sensation refers to detecting and interpreting sound waves that enter the ears (Mather, 2011).
The air carries sound waves that reach our ears and make the eardrum vibrate. These vibrations then pass on to the inner ear where hair cells transform them into electrical signals for the brain to interpret.
Auditory sensation allows us to perceive sound, including speech, music, and various environmental sounds.
3. Tactile Sensation
Tactile sensation involves detecting and interpreting mechanical pressure, temperature, and pain stimuli that affect the skin.
The skin’s sensory receptors detect different stimuli, such as touch, pressure, temperature, and pain, and send signals to the brain, which enables us to feel and perceive these sensations (Mather, 2011).
Tactile sensation enables us to explore and understand the physical properties of objects in our environment. Also, it helps us to avoid injury and respond to dangerous situations.
4. Olfactory Sensation
Olfactory sensation refers to detecting and interpreting odor molecules that enter the nose. Sensory receptors in the nasal cavity detect the odor molecules and transmit signals to the brain, allowing us to perceive smell (Mather, 2011).
Our sense of smell is crucial for detecting and reacting to different environmental signals, such as the aroma of food or potential dangers, such as smoke, natural gas, or chemicals.
5. Gustatory Sensation
Gustatory sensation involves the detection and interpretation of various chemicals detected by tongue taste buds.
The human tongue has five taste receptors sensitive to sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami taste. These taste receptors send signals to the brain, allowing us to perceive taste (Mather, 2011).
The gustatory sensation is quite necessary for identifying the quality and nutritional value of the food. It allows us to make choices based on quality and preference.
Sensation vs. Perception
Sensation and perception are two closely related terms in psychology. Still, there is a subtle difference between them regarding the psychological processes involved (Wolfe, 2006).
In psychology, sensation is defined as the physical process of detecting information from the external environment through our senses. Sensory organs like the eyes, ears, and skin react to various environmental stimuli (Gadhvi & Waseem, 2020).
Perception, on the other hand, refers to the psychological process of interpreting and organizing sensory information into conscious experiences (Mather, 2011).
Sensation is the initial response of the brain to a stimulus. At the same time, perception occurs through the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of sensory information (Wolfe, 2006).
Sensation involves the physical detection of stimuli, while perception is more about how we interpret those stimuli to make sense of our world (Mather, 2011).
Besides, sensation is a bottom-up process, as sensory organs detect and pass information to the brain. On the other hand, perception is a top-down process where expectations and prior knowledge guide our interpretation of sensory information.
So, while sensation means detecting physical information from the environment, perception involves interpreting and organizing that information to create meaningful experiences.
Importance of Sensation in Psychology
Sensation plays an important role in psychology for a variety of reasons, from understanding different disorders to improved decision-making.
Here are some of the common reasons, why studying sensation should be a “must” in psychology:
- Understanding perception: Sensation is the initial step in perception, which is the broader process of interpreting and making sense of sensory input. Psychologists can better understand how people perceive the world around them by studying sensations.
- Understanding sensory disorders: Individuals with sensory impairments such as blindness, deafness, or anosmia (loss of smell) may experience a negative impact on their quality of life. Psychologists study sensations to create interventions that can assist these individuals.
- Designing effective communication strategies: Sensation and perception play an important role in communication, and understanding how both works can help design effective communication strategies. For example, knowing how visual and auditory stimuli are perceived can help design effective presentations or educational materials.
- Improving decision-making: Sensation influences how we perceive and respond to stimuli, affecting our decision-making processes. Studying sensation can provide insight into how humans process sensory information, leading to better decisions or more effective interventions.
- Understanding human behavior: Studying sensation can provide insight into how sensory information affects human behavior, cognition, mood, and reactions to stimuli. This understanding can help scientists gain deeper insights into human behavior and cognitive processes.
The sensation is a critical component of human interaction with the world around them. Without the ability to sense and perceive stimuli, human experiences would be limited.
In contrast to perception, which involves the interpretation and organization of that information, sensation means the detection of stimuli through our senses.
Any sensory experience we have results from the combined workings of these two processes.
Exploring sensation allows psychologists to understand better how people process sensory information. This knowledge can provide insights into communication strategies, decision-making processes, and sensory disorders.
So, studying sensation can lead to improved interventions, communication strategies, and decision-making, resulting in a deeper understanding and better quality of life.
Gadhvi, M., & Waseem, M. (2020). Physiology, sensory system. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547656/
Mather, G. (2011). Essentials of sensation and perception. London: Routledge.
Rajamanickam, M. (2007). Modern general psychology, second edition (revised and expanded) (in 2 vols.). New York: Concept Publishing Company.
Sanderson, C. A., & Huffman, K. R. (2023). Psychological science. New York: Wiley.
Wolfe, J. M. (2006). Sensation & perception. New York: Sinauer Associates.