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.
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.
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.
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.