What Is Perception?

Recognizing Environmental Stimuli Through the Five Senses

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What Is Perception?

Perception refers to our sensory experience of the world. It is through this experience that we gain information about the environment around us.

Perception relies on the cognitive functions we use to process information, such as utilizing memory to recognize the face of a friend or detect a familiar scent. Through the perception process, we are able to both identify and respond to environmental stimuli.

Definition of Perception in Psychology

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines perception as "the process or result of becoming aware of objects, relationships, and events by means of the senses, which includes such activities as recognizing, observing, and discriminating."

Perception includes the five senses; touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. It also includes what is known as proprioception, which is a set of senses that enable us to detect changes in body position and movement.

Many stimuli surround us at any given moment. Perception acts as a filter that allows us to exist within and interpret the world without becoming overwhelmed by this abundance of stimuli.

Types of Perception

The types of perception are often separated by the different senses. This includes visual perception, scent perception, touch perception, sound perception, and taste perception. We perceive our environment using each of these, often simultaneously.

There are also different types of perception in psychology, including:

  • Person perception refers to the ability to identify and use social cues about people and relationships.
  • Social perception is how we perceive certain societies and can be affected by things such as stereotypes and generalizations.

Another type of perception is selective perception. This involves paying attention to some parts of our environment while ignoring others.

The different types of perception allow us to experience our environment and interact with it in ways that are both appropriate and meaningful.

How Perception Works

Through perception, we become more aware of (and can respond to) our environment. We use perception in communication to identify how our loved ones may feel. We use perception in behavior to decide what we think about individuals and groups.

We are perceiving things continuously, even though we don't typically spend a great deal of time thinking about them. For example, the light that falls on our eye's retinas transforms into a visual image unconsciously and automatically. Subtle changes in pressure against our skin, allowing us to feel objects, also occur without a single thought.

Perception Process

To better understand how we become aware of and respond to stimuli in the world around us, it can be helpful to look at the perception process. This varies somewhat for every sense.

In regard to our sense of sight, the perception process looks like this:

  1. Environmental stimulus: The world is full of stimuli that can attract attention. Environmental stimulus is everything in the environment that has the potential to be perceived.
  2. Attended stimulus: The attended stimulus is the specific object in the environment on which our attention is focused.
  3. Image on the retina: This part of the perception process involves light passing through the cornea and pupil, onto the lens of the eye. The cornea helps focus the light as it enters and the iris controls the size of the pupils to determine how much light to let in. The cornea and lens act together to project an inverted image onto the retina.
  4. Transduction: The image on the retina is then transformed into electrical signals through a process known as transduction. This allows the visual messages to be transmitted to the brain to be interpreted.
  5. Neural processing: After transduction, the electrical signals undergo neural processing. The path followed by a particular signal depends on what type of signal it is (i.e. an auditory signal or a visual signal).
  6. Perception: In this step of the perception process, you perceive the stimulus object in the environment. It is at this point that you become consciously aware of the stimulus.
  7. Recognition: Perception doesn't just involve becoming consciously aware of the stimuli. It is also necessary for the brain to categorize and interpret what you are sensing. The ability to interpret and give meaning to the object is the next step, known as recognition.
  8. Action: The action phase of the perception process involves some type of motor activity that occurs in response to the perceived stimulus. This might involve a major action, like running toward a person in distress. It can also involve doing something as subtle as blinking your eyes in response to a puff of dust blowing through the air.

Think of all the things you perceive on a daily basis. At any given moment, you might see familiar objects, feel a person's touch against your skin, smell the aroma of a home-cooked meal, or hear the sound of music playing in your neighbor's apartment. All of these help make up your conscious experience and allow you to interact with the people and objects around you.

Recap of the Perception Process

  1. Environmental stimulus
  2. Attended stimulus
  3. Image on the retina
  4. Transduction
  5. Neural processing
  6. Perception
  7. Recognition
  8. Action

Factors Influencing Perception

What makes perception somewhat complex is that we don't all perceive things the same way. One person may perceive a dog jumping on them as a threat, while another person may perceive this action as the pup just being excited to see them.

Our perceptions of people and things are shaped by our prior experiences, our interests, and how carefully we process information. This can cause one person to perceive the exact same person or situation differently than someone else.

Perception can also be affected by our personality. For instance, research has found that four of the Big 5 personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism—can impact our perception of organizational justice.

Conversely, our perceptions can also affect our personality. If you perceive that your boss is treating you unfairly, for example, you may show traits related to anger or frustration. If you perceive your spouse to be loving and caring, you may show similar traits in return.

Are Perception and Attitude the Same?

While they are similar, perception and attitude are two different things. Perception is how we interpret the world around us, while our attitude (our emotions, beliefs, and behaviors) can impact these perceptions.

Tips to Improve Perception

If you want to improve your perception skills, there are some things that you can do. Actions you can take that may help you perceive more in the world around you—or at least focus on the things that are important—include:

  • Pay attention. Actively notice the world around you, using all your senses. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch? Using your sense of proprioception, notice the movements of your arms and legs, or your changes in body position.
  • Make meaning of what you perceive. The recognition stage of the perception process is essential since it allows you to make sense of the world around you. Place objects in meaningful categories, so you can understand and react appropriately.
  • Take action. The final step of the perception process involves taking some sort of action in response to your environmental stimulus. This could involve a variety of actions, such as stopping to smell the flower you see on the side of the road, incorporating more of your senses.

Potential Pitfalls of Perception

The perception process does not always go smoothly, and there are a number of things that may interfere with our ability to interpret and respond to our environment. One is having a disorder that impacts perception.

Perceptual disorders are cognitive conditions marked by an impaired ability to perceive objects or concepts. Some disorders that may affect perception include:

  • Spatial neglect syndromes, which involve not attending to stimuli on one side of the body
  • Prosopagnosia, also called face blindness, is a disorder that makes it difficult to recognize faces
  • Aphantasia, a condition characterized by an inability to visualize things in your mind
  • Schizophrenia, which is marked by abnormal perceptions of reality

Some of these conditions may be influenced by genetics, while others result from stroke or brain injury.

Perception can also be negatively affected by certain factors. For instance, one study found that when people viewed images of others, they perceived individuals with nasal deformities as having less satisfactory personality traits. So, factors such as this can potentially affect personality perception.

History of Perception

Interest in perception dates back to the time of ancient Greek philosophers who were interested in how people know the world and gain understanding. As psychology emerged as a science separate from philosophy, researchers became interested in understanding how different aspects of perception worked—particularly, the perception of color.

In addition to understanding basic physiological processes, psychologists were also interested in understanding how the mind interprets and organizes these perceptions.

Gestalt psychologists proposed a holistic approach, suggesting that the sum equals more than the sum of its parts. Cognitive psychologists have also worked to understand how motivations and expectations can play a role in the process of perception.

As time progresses, researchers continue to investigate perception on the neural level. They also look at how injury, conditions, and substances might affect perception.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.