Sensation, Perception, and Attention

Sensation, Perception and Attention

As one sits down to study, he or she may not be bothered by potentially distracting environmental stimuli, such as having people around talking or the television being on, while some require a quiet, distraction free environment; for example, a room that everyone in the house knows not to enter or a back corner cubicle desk at the library. Why are some able to block out distracting environmental stimuli, but others require a quietly secluded area to study? The reason that some can and others cannot lies in the difference of ability to focus and control one’s attention toward their own perceptive processes derived from sensations, “processes by which sense organs gather information about the environment and transmit it to the brain for initial processing” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 100).

Kowalski and Westen (2009) acknowledge that the human sensory systems, visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), touch (pressure, temperature, and pain), proprioceptive (sensory information about body’s position and movement), vestibular (sensory information on position of body in space by sensing gravity and movement), and kinesthetic (sensory information about movement and position of limbs and other parts of the body relative to one another) all have specialized cells that respond to environmental stimuli called sensory receptors, which are used to transform the energy from environmental stimuli into a neural impulse that can be understood by the brain, a process referred to as transduction (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Because auditory sensory information is more difficult to “tune” out because sound waves travel through most objects (Kowalski & Westen, 2009), the auditory sensory system is the focus of this document in relation to the type of environment that facilitates the attention and perceptive processes of each team member. Following the discussion on the auditory sensory system and individual differences in thresholds for auditory stimuli, we will discuss how dividing one’s attention can either impede or facilitate learning; we will also provide an explanation of the sensory perception problem and conclude with some recommendations and ground rules that will accommodate auditory sensation, perception, and attention to learning during team meetings.

Auditory Sensory System’s Threshold

            Although it is so quick that one is unaware of it, environmental stimuli are encoded for intensity and quality by the auditory sensory system in the brain, as is evident by the amplitude (loudness) and frequency (pitch) of a sound wave’s cycle, the expansion and contraction of air that flows through the ear canal where “transduction occurs by way of hair cells attached to the basilar membrane that respond to vibrations in the fluid-filled cochlea, … [a] process [that] triggers action potentials in the auditory nerve, which are then transmitted to the brain” (Kowalski & Westen, 2009, p. 152); but why can some focus out potentially distracting stimuli while others need a quietly secluded area to study? The difference between these two types of people can be found among individual’s sensitivity to the least amount of stimulation needed for one to notice the stimulus, or one’s absolute threshold (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).


            Perception is the active process by which the brain organizes and interprets sensations such as color, light, hot, and so forth.  Perceiving is much more than merely opening ones eyes and ears to see and hear what is there.  Perception takes a continuous array of sensations in through the senses and organizes it into meaningful units.  It then interprets the organized information (Kowalski &  Westen, 2009).

The mind has several organizational patterns available when forming sensations into perceptions.  Some examples are:  Form perception organizes sensations into shapes and patterns that have meaning to the observer, Object identification requires matching current objects against past percepts stored in memory for identification of the object, Depth perception perceives objects as having height, width, and breadth and distance, and Simplicity perceives objects in the simplest pattern possible.  Considering these patterns helps one to understand why keeping the study and learning environment of team members as free of auditory and visual distraction as possible is necessary for excellence in performance of team assignments (Kowalski &  Westen, 2009).

The nature versus nurture debate that continues to be debated in nearly every domain of psychology continues to look at the question of how much our current perceptions rely on our experience.  The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that humans innately experience the world using the categories of time, space, and causality.  He felt like people automatically equate why something has happened to their prior learning and that the mind creates perception. Psychologist James Gibson states, in contrast to Kant, that the world creates and organizes perception so that we observe the order that exists in nature.  His theory of direct perception holds that the meaning of stimuli is innate and obvious to everyone and is immediately generated from he sensory experience (Kowalski &  Westen, 2009). This debate misses the point that the nervous system has innate potentials that require environmental input to develop.  Perception involves both bottom-up processing, which begins with sensory data that feed “up” to the brain, and top-down processing, which begins with the observer’s expectations and knowledge.   So we see that environmental experiences shape perception by creating perceptual expectations (Kowalski &  Westen, 2009).

Context plays a big role in perceptual interpretation by stating how readily one understands the meaning of what is perceived depends on his or her experience with and understanding of it.  Also, one may ask what else may be going on that may suggest an otherwise but different meaning (Kowalski & Westen, 2009)?  A team member’s immediate context affects their perceptual interpretation but also the member’s enduring beliefs and expectations will affect perception of information, organization of data, and assignment performance.

Perception and memory produce thought that forms a mental representation and when one remembers, he or she tries to bring that representation to mind. Thinking uses images and words that then are classified into what the representations are and do thereby placing people and objects into categories that are used to try to solve a problem or answer a question (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).


            When one is trying to focus attention on studies or a job at hand it is important to use sensor processing efficiently.  This requires turning down the volume on redundant  information because the nervous system tunes out continuous information (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).  When students sit down to study, it is best to keep background noise to a minimum.  To have a radio or television playing while trying to study creates continuous noise that will hinder the mind’s ability to focus unless the sound is below the person’s threshold.  Arranging for a quiet and uninterrupted place to study will provide the best environment for clear thinking and attention.


            Because of the individual differences of students in learning teams, knowing, and understanding others environments and backgrounds helps students work together more effectively.  The differences in sensations and perceptions affect how each team member learns, behaves and works.

Knowing the mental struggles of one of our team members enabled us to understand when he chose to leave the class.  Understanding the behavior of individuals comes from knowledge and appreciation of the particular sensory and perceptual experiences of others.  To understand psychological disturbances it is helpful for to understand the limitations and complexities of the sensory systems and the role perception plays in either distorting or correcting those systems.

As teams continue to work together, understanding the stimulus thresholds of each member as well as how dividing attention facilitates or impedes the learning process will guide members to know how best to divide responsibilities to achieve maximum results.

Creating ground rules such as making sure one is in a quiet environment with telephone, television and radio distractions eliminated will help each team member’s attention is undivided when working on team assignments.  When noise and distractions are kept below individual threshold levels, the environment becomes conducive to learning and completing assignments.  Information is processed in a clear manner and attention is focused and direct.  Without distractions, our sensory perceptions can access short and long-term memory for information needed as well as organizing and processing conscious thoughts to solve problems and form opinions.  This is especially important when dealing with several members on a team trying to complete an assignment in a short amount of time.


Kowalski, R. & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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