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7.1: Introduction to the Senses

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    Photo shows a shark swimming toward the camera.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This shark uses its senses of sight and smell to hunt, but it also relies on its ability to sense the electric fields of prey, a sense not present in most land animals. (credit: modification of work by Hermanus Backpackers Hostel, South Africa)

    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—and monitoring information about the organism’s internal environment. All bilaterally symmetric animals have a sensory system, and 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. The shark, unlike most fish predators, is electrosensitive—that is, 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. in this chapter, information about smell, taste, hearing, and vision is presented.

    Special and General Senses

    The human body has two basic types of senses, called special senses and general senses. Special senses have specialized sense organs that gather sensory information and change it into nerve impulses. Special senses include the vision for which the eyes are the specialized sense organs, hearing (ears), balance (ears), taste (tongue), and smell (nasal passages). General senses, in contrast, are all associated with the sense of touch and lack special sense organs. Instead, sensory information about touch is gathered by the skin and other body tissues, all of which have important functions besides gathering sensory information. Whether the senses are special or general, however, all of them depend on cells called sensory receptors.

    Sensory Receptors

    A sensory receptor is a specialized nerve cell that responds to a stimulus in the internal or external environment by generating a nerve impulse. The nerve impulse then travels along with the sensory (afferent) nerve to the central nervous system for processing and to form a response.

    A major role of sensory receptors is to help us learn about the environment around us, or about the state of our internal environment. Stimuli from varying sources, and of different types, are received and changed into the electrochemical signals of the nervous system. This occurs when a stimulus changes the cell membrane potential of a sensory neuron. The stimulus causes the sensory cell to produce an action potential that is relayed into the central nervous system (CNS), where it is integrated with other sensory information—or sometimes higher cognitive functions—to become a conscious perception of that stimulus. The central integration may then lead to a motor response.

    Describing sensory function with the term sensation or perception is a deliberate distinction. Sensation is the activation of sensory receptor cells at the level of the stimulus. Perception is the central processing of sensory stimuli into a meaningful pattern. Perception is dependent on sensation, but not all sensations are perceived. Receptors are the cells or structures that detect sensations. A receptor cell is changed directly by a stimulus. A transmembrane protein receptor is a protein in the cell membrane that mediates a physiological change in a neuron, most often through the opening of ion channels or changes in the cell signaling processes. Transmembrane receptors are activated by chemicals called ligands. For example, a molecule in food can serve as a ligand for taste receptors. Other transmembrane proteins, which are not accurately called receptors, are sensitive to mechanical or thermal changes. Physical changes in these proteins increase ion flow across the membrane, and can generate an action potential or a graded potential in the sensory neurons.

    There are several different types of sensory receptors that respond to different kinds of stimuli:

    • Mechanoreceptors respond to mechanical forces such as pressure, roughness, vibration, and stretching. Most mechanoreceptors are found in the skin and are needed for the sense of touch. Mechanoreceptors are also found in the inner ear where they are needed for the senses of hearing and balance.
    • Thermoreceptors respond to variations in temperature. They are found mostly in the skin and detect temperatures that are above or below body temperature.
    • Nociceptors respond to potentially damaging stimuli, which are generally perceived as pain. They are found in internal organs as well as on the surface of the body. Different nociceptors are activated depending on the particular stimulus. For example, some detect damaging heat or cold, others detect excessive pressure, and still, others detect painful chemicals such as very hot spices in food.
    • Photoreceptors detect and respond to light. Most photoreceptors are found in the eyes and are needed for the sense of vision.
    • Chemoreceptors respond to certain chemicals. They are found mainly in taste buds on the tongue, where they are needed for the sense of taste; and in nasal passages, where they are needed for the sense of smell.


    1. Compare and contrast special senses and general senses.
    2. What are sensory receptors?
    3. List five types of sensory receptors and the type of stimulus each detects.

    7.1: Introduction to the Senses is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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