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36.1: Sensory Processes - Reception

  • Page ID
    • Boundless
    • Boundless
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    Learning Objectives
    • Explain the process of sensory reception

    Introduction to Sensation

    In more advanced animals, the senses are constantly at work, making the animal aware of stimuli, such as light or sound or the presence of a chemical substance in the external environment, while monitoring information about the organism’s internal environment. All bilaterally symmetric animals have a sensory system. The development of any species ‘ sensory system has been driven by natural selection; thus, sensory systems differ among species according to the demands of their environments. For example, the shark, unlike most fish predators, is electrosensitive (i.e., sensitive to electrical fields produced by other animals in its environment). While it is helpful to this underwater predator, electrosensitivity is a sense not found in most land animals.

    Senses provide information about the body and its environment. Humans have five special senses: olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), equilibrium (balance and body position), vision, and hearing. Additionally, we possess general senses, also called somatosensation, which respond to stimuli like temperature, pain, pressure, and vibration. Vestibular sensation, which is an organism’s sense of spatial orientation and balance, proprioception (position of bones, joints, and muscles), and the sense of limb position that is used to track kinesthesia (limb movement) are part of somatosensation. Although the sensory systems associated with these senses are very different, all share a common function: to convert a stimulus (light, sound, or the position of the body) into an electrical signal in the nervous system. This process is called sensory transduction.

    There are two broad types of cellular systems that perform sensory transduction. In one, a neuron works with a sensory receptor, a cell, or cell process that is specialized to engage with and detect a specific stimulus. Stimulation of the sensory receptor activates the associated afferent neuron, which carries information about the stimulus to the central nervous system. In the second type of sensory transduction, a sensory nerve ending responds to a stimulus in the internal or external environment; this neuron constitutes the sensory receptor. Free nerve endings can be stimulated by several different stimuli, thus showing little receptor specificity. For example, pain receptors in your gums and teeth may be stimulated by temperature changes, chemical stimulation, or pressure.


    The first step in sensation is reception: the activation of sensory receptors by stimuli such as mechanical stimuli (being bent or squished, for example), chemicals, or temperature. The receptor can then respond to the stimuli. The region in space in which a given sensory receptor can respond to a stimulus, be it far away or in contact with the body, is that receptor’s receptive field. Think for a moment about the differences in receptive fields for the different senses. For the sense of touch, a stimulus must come into contact with body. For the sense of hearing, a stimulus can be a moderate distance away. For vision, a stimulus can be very far away; for example, the visual system perceives light from stars at enormous distances.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Visual sensory system: This scheme shows the flow of information from the eyes to the central connections of the optic nerves and optic tracts, to the visual cortex. Area V1 is the region of the brain which is engaged in vision.

    Key Points

    • Reception is the process of activating a sensory receptor by a stimuli.
    • Sensory transduction is the process of converting that sensory signal to an electrical signal in the sensory neuron.
    • The process of reception is dependent on the stimuli itself, the type of receptor, receptor specificity, and the receptive field, which can vary depending on the receptor type.

    Key Terms

    • somatosensation: general senses which respond to stimuli like temperature, pain, pressure, and vibration
    • reception: the act or ability to receive signals from stimuli

    This page titled 36.1: Sensory Processes - Reception is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Boundless.

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