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How perception works

By Jasper09 April 2020

Your perception is key in learning and understanding the world around your perception. perception cognitive skillBut how do we perceive things? And how does it affect our experiences? In this article, we’ll explain you everything you need to know about perception.

What is the definition of perception?

Perception is the organization, identification and interpretation of the information you receive through your senses. Your brain uses perception in order to understand the information received. In simple words, the interpretation your brain makes based on what you see, hear, smell, feel, taste and how that correlates to previous memories.



What is perception and why is it important?

Your perception is your ability of understanding or becoming aware of information received through your senses. This process is important because it helps you to interpret and understand everything around you.
Without this cognitive skill, the face of someone you know would just be a combination of colors, shapes, dept etc. You wouldn’t even be able to differentiate the smell of a rose from a pizza that would be burning in your oven. These smells would just be smells you wouldn’t be able to make meaning out of it.

The difference between sensation and perception

While perception is known as the processes of your senses receiving information about your environment, this is actually not the case. Perception is often misunderstood by sensation. While the two are interrelated, they are not the same.
Where sensation refers to the process of receiving information through the senses, perception is the way your brain interprets these sensations. In other words, sensation is about receiving information, where perception is the processing of this information.

difference perception sensation


Sensation and perception exist out of different subjects, we’ve listed them below:


sensation perception exists out of

Where sensation only exists out of the senses, perception also exists out of social, speech, faces and social touch. This makes it possible to not only interpret literal information perceived by the senses, but also to recognize and understand faces, social interactions and communication.
To give a clear idea of the differences between sensation and perception, we’ve put the important differences next to each other in the image below.

difference sensation perception


How are perceptions created?

The process of forming your perception of the world around you, begins with the situation of your environment existing of all kinds of information. Although receiving this information and interpreting it happens faster than you can blink, a whole process precedes before a perception is made. We’ll explain this process by going through the stages that occur during this process with an example. Let’s say you perceive a freshly baked pie that is taken out of the oven in front of you.
These are the stages of the process of how a perception is created:

Stage 1: Sensory stimuli sent by your environmentstimuli example

Your environment is full of different types of information, you are surrounded by different sounds, sights, smells and more. before your brain gives a meaning to this information with your perception, this is just raw information. In our example, you see a freshly baked pie being taken out of the oven. But at this stage, the pie and the oven are just shapes, colors, lights and smells and nothing more. Without having any meaning to you yet.

Stage 2: Sensory receptors receiving stimuli

Before you brain can even create a perception, it needs to receive the information about your environment or situation. Your senses receive all this information, this is also known as sensation. The receptors of your senses receive the information, these are your feeling (haptic), hearing (echoic), sight (iconic), smell (olfactory) and taste (gustatory) senses. At this moment the information still only exists out of shapes, colors, lights etc., but your brain has now taken notice of these sensations

In the example of the pie, your hearing might receive information of the oven still running, your smell might receive information coming from the pie and your sight might receive information of the shapes of both the oven and the pie. Do you experience that you are already seeing, smelling and perhaps even tasting the pie? This is your perception and memory at work, we’ll explain how this works after stage 5.

types of senses


Stage 3: Attention filtering irrelevant informationcognitive skill attention

Although this not might be a perception specific step, it is an important step in making perceptions from relevant information. Instead of your brain actually receiving all information that your senses pick up. We’ve previously explained how our sensory receptors pick up information about the pie, but the sensory receptors actually pick up a lot more information than what you’re focused on. Without the cognitive skill attention, your brain would become overloaded and unable to function.

Stage 4. Information being sent towards relevant parts of the brain 

The relevant information that has been received through the senses, is being sent towards the relevant parts of the brain. This is possible because of the nervous system, which sends messages across your brain. This process is also called a neural impulse. The message that is being send, is being carried by what we call a neuron. The sending and receiving of this impulse happens very quickly, you could compare it to flipping a switch of a light in the room. When flipping the light switch, electricity flows from the switch to the light through the wires. Just like the switch example, the neural impulse is an electric impulse.   
In our pie example, the information received by your eyes, nose and ears is being sent in the form of a neural impulse. The information received by each sense type, goes to the part of the brain that is responsible for recognizing smells, sights or sounds. 

Stage 5. Relevant brain parts receive and interpret the information

After receiving the information, your brain organizes and interprets the information to create context.
The information about lights, shapes and colors will be organized and interpreted within the occipital lope, which is located on at the blue spot in the brain on the image below. Together with your memory, which has stored information about previous times you’ve seen an oven and a pie, your brain puts the information into context. This enables you to recognize these lights, shapes and colors and determine it’s an oven and a pie.
The information about the smell of the freshly baked pie will be organized and interpreted within the frontal lope, more specifically on the purple spot in the image below. Just like your vision, the combination of the information stored within your memory and the information received through the nose will be recognized as the smell of a freshly baked pie.
Last but not least, the information about sound will be organized and interpreted by within the green spot of the image below. This is a part of the brain we call the Temporal lobe. The sound you hear will now be recognizable as the sound of an oven that is still on.

sensation perception difference


As already mentioned, your perception and memory are working together so you can give meaning to everything in your environment. This occurs because memories of specific information received by the senses, are stored within places of the brain that are responsible to store sense specific information. Just like the image above visualizes. Because your brain stores all this information, you’re able to actually smell, visualize and taste fresh pie when you are thinking about it.

how perceptions are created


Signal detection theory

In some cases, a specific stimulus gets detected while the stimulus is weaker than others, although you might think that the strongest stimuli would be received and processed. But this is actually not how it works. Someone might detect a specific, but weaker stimuli through all the other stronger stimuli. This can be explained by the signal detection theory, depending on the context certain stimuli are received and others aren’t. For example, parents of a new-born are likely to hear their baby crying over the sound of a train passing by. Simply because their brain is programmed during that time to hear, smell, and prioritize the stimuli sent by their baby over other stimuli. 

Threshold of sensation

The functioning of the senses is often tested and divided into three levels, testing your senses in these different levels can say something about the functioning of your senses. The different levels are the absolute threshold, the differential threshold and the terminal threshold. The way you perceive things depends on the information your brain receives about your environment from the sensational process. The functioning of your senses regarding the different thresholds, therefore, affects how you experience things after you feel, hear, see, smell and taste them. We go through them one by one:

  • Absolute threshold

Although your senses receive stimuli that are both strong and weak, your senses aren’t able to detect every stimulus in your environment. When stimuli are at such a low level, you wouldn’t be able to hear, smell, see, taste or feel them. This is what we call the absolute threshold of sensation. The absolute threshold differs from person to person. In the image below, you can find an example of the absolute threshold per sense type from which people can detect 50% of the time.


absolute threshold sensation


  • Differential threshold

While your senses detect all kinds of stimuli at once, some of these stimuli are close to each other. This can be noises that sound almost the same, colours that look almost the same etc. The minimal difference that a person can detect between to stimuli is also called the differential threshold. This means that two stimuli do in fact differ from each other, but you might only feel, hear, see, smell or taste one thing. Take colors for example, there are colors that are so close alike that you might just see one color. In the image below you can see this, the number of colors people see differs from person to person. The first row shows the, in most cases, easy to detect primary and a couple of secondary colors. The second row challenges your visual sense, with different shades of the same color.

differential threshold example

The different shades of red in the image above is a great example of the differential threshold. While there are different shades of red, you might see just a couple of shades and might consider different shades of red as the same. How much shades of red do you see? And are some of the boxes the same shade of red? The image below shows which boxes are the same shade of red.

differential threshold shades


  • Terminal threshold

Desired or not, your senses pick up stimuli. This can not only benefit you, but it could also bring negative effects. Not only feeling, but also hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling can cause you to experience pain when the stimuli has a high level of intensity. Light might be so bright it hurts your eyes, a smell might be so bad and intense it makes you feel sick and a sound might be so high or loud that it hurts your ears. In most cases, these stimuli are detected by your senses and a signal of the stimuli will be sent to your brain quicker than all other stimuli. This might be despite the fact that you are trying to focus on something else, to ensure a reaction that would protect your body. Like when you are trying to have a conversation and an ambulance is passing by. While you are trying to focus on the other person talking, you might not even hear the person anymore because of the loud noise. The brain receives a message of pain, which might result in putting your hands over your ears. 

What factors affect perception?

Besides the way our senses detect stimuli, there are other internal factors that could affect your perception of things. Both external information perceived through your senses and information that was already stored within our brain (internal) are used in the perception process, Therefore, your perception might be shaped by:

  • Your memory

  • Your expectations

  • Your attention

  • Your personality

  • Your motives

  • Your interests


How to improve your perception? 

By stimulating your brain to focus on tasks that require your perception, you are able to improve your perception. There are simple ways to improve your perception by changing you environment. For example, you can improve your perception by:

  • Avoid stimuli that might harm your senses, such as a headphone with loud music

  • Try to think objectively before judging something

  • Exercise moderately on a weekly basis

  • Healthy nutrition

  • Ensuring enough sleep

  • Do brain training exercises that stimulate your perception



Perception is the interpretation your brain makes based on what you see, hear, smell, feel, taste and the information that is already stored within your memory. Perception is important because it helps you to understand the world around you.
Sensation refers to the process of receiving information through the senses, perception refers to the way your brain interprets these sensations. If and how you perceive things, depends on your absolute, differential and terminal threshold. If you would like to improve your perception, you can improve your lifestyle and train your perception with exercises.