Perception: Introduction to the Perceptual Process

Perception which is derived from the term “Percept” refers to a series of processes which we have to undergo to make sense of the stimuli which we encounter mentally by organization and interpretation of information about the environment we live in or are subjected to. Sensory receptors detect the stimuli or the sensory information and pass it onto the central nervous system through a process of transduction which is the process of conversion of sensory stimulus to action potential. Perception on the other hand will depend on the way in which one interprets the sensory stimuli. Sensation is followed by perception.

The process of perception starts with the exposure to a stimuli present in the environment and concludes with the interpretation of the stimuli or is experienced consciously. It is perception which determines how we will actually interpret the sensory information or the stimuli and interact with the environment.

The process of perception entails top-down and bottom-up processing, bottom-up because perceptual process starts with the inputs received from the sensory receptors. It also involves top-down processing because the perceptual process is concerned with the interpretation of the sensory stimuli based on our knowledge, thoughts and past experiences. The perceptual process is psychological while sensation is more of a physical process. Though perceptions are built from the sensory inputs, but it is not necessary that all sensations might result in perception. Attention is also one of the crucial factors which influence sensation and perception. Attention plays a crucial role in determining what is being sensed or perceived. Other factors like motivation, beliefs, life experiences, prejudices, our values and environmental factors or the cultural context, equally influence our perception.

Sensation and perception complement and balance each other well. In the absence of sensation or perception, it will be difficult for us to make sense out of the stimuli which is presented by the outside world or the environment around us. One cannot perceive of sensation without perception or even perception without sensation. However, both are different as they process information differently. In the process of sensation, our sensory organs by being exposed to a stimulus in the environment absorb energy, which is then converted to neural impulses and transmitted to the brain by the sensory receptors. In the case of perception, the brain organizes the information and interprets it into something meaningful, which is again influenced by selective attention and perceptual expectancy.

Selective Attention is the process of demarcating what is important and less relevant. For example, a group of employees while attending a training program may selectively follow or understand the instructions of the trainer as they might be dissuaded by other factors like the trainerís personality, voice quality, training hall ambience or the other participantís participation. Perceptual expectancy on the other hand implies, how and what we perceive will depend on our past experiences, biological factors or the culture. For example, by seeing a painting on the wall you might not be able to interpret the message which the artist wishes to convey though his work of art. But on listening from someone, one may develop an understanding about the theme of the painting and start finding meaning in it.

The Perception Process

The perceptual process follows a series of steps which starts with an exposure to stimuli and ends with an interpretation of the stimuli. The perceptual process is usually unconscious which happens without our awareness and also for several times in a day. The process of perception passes through the following stages:

Selection: This is the first stage of perception which involves decision making about what needs to be attended to, which can be unconscious sometimes and on other occasions can be intentional. The world around us might present infinite stimuli, but our brain has the capacity to attend to the stimuli selectively, which depends upon the environmental factors or individual factors. When we attend to a stimulus selectively, it is considered as attended stimulus. Selection is influenced by various factors such as drives & motives, impulses and incentives for acting in a certain way. Emotional drive in a number of ways can influence how we selectively attend to stimuli. This has been explained with the help of the following examples:

  • Selective Retention: It means, we have a tendency to recall or retain that information which is compatible with our interests, beliefs and values as opposed to those which conflict with our interests, values or belief system, as a result of which we selectively organize the information. For example, a consumer may rationalize the product purchase which they enjoy by considering only the health benefits or the positive aspects of that product.
  • Selective Perception: It is the tendency to perceive only such information or things which we want to perceive and completely ignore the opposing factors which are against our beliefs, preferences or values. For example, a teacher may find all the good qualities in her favourite student and may completely ignore the negative one because of the perceptual bias.
  • Selective Exposure: We select and organize only that information to which we want to be exposed to based on our past beliefs, perception or experiences.

Organization: Once the stimulus is selectively chosen, the second stage comes into play. In this stage, a series of reactions set in the brain. It starts with the process of activation of sensory receptors, which is then transmitted to the brain as neural energy and involves mental construction of the stimulus which is called as percept. In this stage, we tend to mentally organize the stimulus into meaningful patterns for being able to interpret the same properly. Perceptual schema helps in organizing information or grouping of the stimuli on the basis of the appearances, interactions, social roles and a lot of other factors. These schemas then determine how we perceive things about the world around us. We even do have a tendency to form stereotypes for making sense of the world around us, which is the tendency to simplify or group related stimuli together to be able to easily understand and interpret the information in the simplistic possible way. Stereotyping may have dangerous implications when it is based on unrealistic attribution of certain characteristics to the entire group. It may result in discriminatory behaviour or a bias or oppressive behaviour.

Interpretation: Once the stimulus is attended to selectively and the information is organized by the brain, the interpretation of the information takes place for providing some meaning to the stimulus to which we are exposed. We tend to categorize the stimulus for being able to acquire a proper understanding and take improved decisions accordingly. Interpretation is subjective in nature because different people might perceive the same stimuli differently in the influence of their past experiences, attitude, values or beliefs.


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