What Is Sense Perception?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Sense perception, also called sensory perception, is gaining an understanding or awareness of what is happening or present in the surrounding environment. It happens when a person gathers, organizes and interprets pieces of sensory information. This is a complex task that is deeply connected to the nervous system of the body.

Smell is one form of sense perception.
Smell is one form of sense perception.

The heart of sense perception is the sensory organs such as the eyes, skin and ears. These organs essentially serve as an interface between the brain and the environment. Once these organs have a piece of data, complex signals are sent to the brain through the nervous system. The brain interprets these signals so that the data has meaning.

Equilibrioception is the body's ability to know how it is positioned and maintain balance.
Equilibrioception is the body's ability to know how it is positioned and maintain balance.

The way the brain interprets information from the sensory organs of the body is incredibly complex. Structures in both the rational and emotional centers of the brain contribute to holding memories of the information a person gains. These memories allow people to make comparisons between different things, to learn and to make rational judgments. For instance, based on the experiences a person has, he can deduce whether what he perceives is real or simply an illusion.

A person with ESP may know that a person is in trouble without being near the person.
A person with ESP may know that a person is in trouble without being near the person.

The fact that everyone's brain works a little differently and that people have different experiences means that not everyone will interpret sensory data in the same way. A classic example is a picture of two identical face silhouettes looking at each other with space in the middle. Some people see only the silhouettes. Others see only the space between the silhouettes, which looks like a goblet or cup. This is intriguing to psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors and other professionals such as teachers who need to understand how sense perception ties into a person's behavior, health or ability to learn. Different brain function and experiences also mean that sensory perception is not constant but rather is shaped over time as memories form.

Traditionally, experts always have included the five major senses in sensory perception. These include sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Some experts believe sensory perception involves other lesser-recognized senses. Examples of these include equilibrioception, the ability to know how the body is positioned and keep balance; proprioception, the ability to know where parts of the body are without seeing them; thermoception, the ability to detect heat and cold; and temporal perception, which is the sense of the passage of time. Another sense originally thought to be part of general touch is nociception, or the ability to sense pain.

Of considerable debate is extra-sensory perception, or ESP. The simple definition of ESP is the ability to gather data beyond regular senses. For example, a person with ESP might know when someone is in trouble without being near to the other person, or they be able to detect the presence of a spirit. Many people do not believe ESP exists, but proponents often take great lengths to explain how to tap into this type of perception and thereby become more internally and externally aware.

Sense perception occurs in many different species, not just in people. The way different species are designed means their sense perception often is different than that of humans. For instance, dogs have a sense of smell that can be dozens of times greater than a person's sense of smell.

Given all the variables present with sense perception, it is virtually impossible to say that there is a right or wrong way to perceive. As people learn more about the brain, however, understanding of sense perception will grow. This may help people advance in multiple areas, including medicine, design, education and even advertising and marketing.

Communicating telepathically would be considered a sixth sense.
Communicating telepathically would be considered a sixth sense.

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Discussion Comments


I do believe that there is a sense that we haven't discovered yet. It's what most of us call intuition. Some people think that it's just guessing but I don't think that's true. Sometimes we can sense something although we can't see it, hear it or touch it. It happened to me when my grandfather died. I was hundreds of miles away but I just knew it. There has to be a scientific explanation of this.


@bluedolphin-- I think that's an underestimate of our sense perception. It truly is an amazing system. I don't know about what all we can process at once. That probably has to do with our vision, the fact that we can't focus on two different parts of a room at the same time.

But if we look at how quickly the sensory information is processed and made sense of by our brain, it's spectacular. It takes only a few milliseconds for us to know what we are seeing, hearing, smelling or touching.

Of course, perception varies from person to person and even culture to culture. I'm sure some people are born with better abilities than others.


All sources say that the process of perceiving sensory information is very complex. I'm sure it is but I don't think that most of us are very good at it.

As far as I know, we are only able to take in a very limited amount of information at one time. So when we look at a room, we only perceive and process some of the things we see. We completely ignore the rest because that's our capacity. There is a great phrase from Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories that probably applies to must of us. It's when Sherlock Holmes says to John Watson -- "As ever, you see but do not observe."

We have a great mechanism for making sense of what we see but we are obviously not using it to its potential. We don't even try.

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