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In living beings , perception is the process and the subjective result of information acquisition (reception) and processing of stimuli from the environment and the body. This happens through unconscious (and sometimes conscious in humans ) filtering and merging of partial information into subjectively meaningful overall impressions. These are also called percepts and are continuously compared with stored ideas ( constructs and schemes ).

The content and qualities of a perception can sometimes (but not always) be changed through targeted control of attention and perception strategies.

The entirety of all sensory perception processes is also known as sensor technology .


Forms of perception

A basic distinction is made between extero and interoception . Exteroception generally refers to the perception of the outside world; the term interoception as an umbrella term for the perception of one's own body. In the latter, a distinction is made between proprioception (perception of body position and movement in space) and visceroception (perception of organ activities).

The perception of the outside world initially referred primarily to the “five senses ” ( smell , sight , hearing , taste and touch). Feeling ( sense of touch ) can, on the one hand, be divided into the perception of touch , pain and temperature ( surface sensitivity ), but on the other hand it can also be divided into active recognition ( haptic perception ) and passive “being touched” (surface sensitivity). Further senses are the sense of balance , the sense of time and the sense of magnetism .

The psychology knows next to the concepts of self -perception, the former being the beliefs that we ourselves have of us or our feelings and behavior, while perception refers to the impressions that others gain from us. If these perceptions are not at least partially congruent, problems in interpersonal communication can arise.

Basic concepts

A distinction is made between the following scientific and ideological definitions of the process of perception:

  • In the psychology and physiology of perception (eg comparison with prior knowledge.) Refers to the sum of the steps recording, selection, processing and interpretation of sensory information - and only that information which the adaptation ( adaptation serve) the perceiver to the environment or that give him feedback on the effects of his behavior. According to this definition, not all sensory stimuli are perceptions, but only those that are cognitively processed and serve the orientation of a subject. Perception enables meaningful action and, in the case of higher living beings, the construction of mental models of the world and thus anticipatory and planning thinking. Perception is a basis of learning processes.
  • In biology , the term perception is more narrowly defined and describes the ability of an organism to seek out, receive and process information with its sensory organs .
  • In philosophy , perception is differentiated from cognition (the mental processing of what is perceived) and denotes - depending on the perception theory - the sensual image or the sensual representation of parts or aspects of the outside world in the central nervous system of living beings. It also includes the relationships between the recorded objects.

Perception theory

Perception theory seeks to bridge the gap between subjective-psychological experience in a perception and objective-physiological description of the perceptual processes in the organism, see psychophysical level . It is here differentiated from theories of perception in the history of philosophy and the so-called Cartesian theater.

Sense, sensory perception, sensory organ, sensory system, sensorium

A sensory organ (e.g. eye) receives stimuli from certain modalities (here: visual) as sensory perception (here: optical perception) and forwards them to the responsible sensory brain area or to another complex of the central nervous system that produces the sensory impression. Long before the discovery of the neuroanatomical basis of perception, this primary sensory impression was called “sensation” and was thus referred to by perception i. w. S. delimited. Perception only comes about through a second step of comparing all sensory perceptions with existing data, so to speak through a kind of internal ›passport control‹ (gnostic brain functions in the so-called secondary association centers). One also speaks of sensory integration . Only with this performance of the brain centers is a sense (for example seeing) implemented, which allows us to recognize ' meaningful'  objects (for example seeing and recognizing writing), cf. also the linguistic derivation of consciousness ( lat . conscientia “Mitwissen” and ancient Greek συνείδησις syneidesis , German “Miterscheinung, Mitbild, Mitwissen” , συναίσθησις perception and φρόνησις from φρόνειν being in the senses, thinking ). Perception thus represents a ›perception‹. The sum of all sensory perceptions corresponds to the perception (sensory system) as a whole. Also z. As the English language distinguishes between sensation and perception (Engl. Sensation and perception ). The English term awareness = consciousness depends language with " perception ", " becoming aware ", " true " together (aengl. Warian ).

In the theoretical considerations of Charles S. Peirce , one also speaks of qualia in this context . Quale or phenomenal consciousness is understood to be the subjective experience of a mental state.

The entirety of the brain areas that are responsible for sensor technology are called sensory projection centers . They play an essential role for consciousness, the so-called sensorium . In a broader sense, sensorium is also to be understood as the entirety of the sensory organs including the nerve cells responsible for stimulus conduction and processing .

Exemplary excursus on eyesight: Sensory Physiology and Sensory Psychology

General preliminary conceptual remarks

The distinction between sensation and perception has been treated controversially in the past. Hubert Rohracher and Wilhelm Wundt have both distinguished these terms from one another. However, Wundt was in contrast to Gestalt psychology . The Marburg School has developed its own standpoint on the concept of sensation. JG Herder also set up his own doctrine of sensation . Instead of a criticism of reason , he first called for a physiology of the human powers of knowledge.

Today the senses are seen as conveyors of sensations. In strictly physiological terms, sensation is the “primary immediate psychological correlate of sensory excitation through stimuli”.


Primary cortical field
Using the example of vision, the current state of knowledge is presented more specifically: The optical image is generated in the primarily visual cortex of the brain (occipitale Brodmann area 17, sulcus calcarinus ) in the manner of a projection process from the retina onto the cerebral cortex fields, see Fig. 1 and 2. One speaks here of the center of vision . This represents a primary field of the cerebral cortex . The nerve pathways between the eye and the cerebral cortex are called the visual pathway . After switching over the individual fibers of the visual pathway in the brain stem , the visual pathway is referred to as visual radiation , see → Corpus geniculatum laterale . It represents a projection path. Before this switchover one speaks of the optic nerve and optic tract. Sensory centers are each determined by a chain of neurons ending there . The “primary image” created in area 17 is also referred to as visual sensation . Unilateral lesion of area 17 z. B. causes unilateral visual field loss on the opposite side of the lesion (contralateral hemianopia ). A double-sided destruction of the entire primarily visual cortex causes complete blindness ( cortical blindness ).
Secondary cortical field
Each primary sensory area ( primary cortex ) is followed by a secondary area, which is therefore also called an association area. In the case of vision, the secondary area of ​​visual association is in fields 18 and 19 of the occipital lobe, i.e. H. immediately in front of area 17. In these association areas or secondary sensory centers , the information received in the individual primarily sensory bark fields is integrated with one another, compared with previously stored information (memories) and thus brought to understanding.

In the case of damage to the secondary cerebral cortex fields responsible for vision, one speaks of optical agnosia ( soul blindness ). What is seen can then no longer be recognized. In a special case, such damage to the secondary optical association area means that writing can no longer be read ( alexia ), even if the pure writing can still be seen. Correspondingly there are also acoustic, tactile, somatotopic (e.g. autotopagnosia , neglect , right-left disorientation) and olfactory agnosias . They are caused by damage to the respective secondary association areas for a primary specific sensory center. For each sensory area or for each sensory mode there is a specific sensory center in the brain - both sensory-physiologically and anatomically-topographically distinguishable - which is located in the rear part of the brain and there, so to speak, has its own representation. The concept of sensual representation is important for the quality of our consciousness (attention or clarity of observation ). Consciousness always represents something.

The term projection centers is common in anatomical and physiological terminology . This means the relocation of a sensory stimulus to a certain point. This location (Greek topos ) can be precisely defined (or localized) anatomically and topographically on a map of the cerebral cortex - as shown in Fig. 1–2 above. By forwarding sensory stimuli to another point in the central nervous system, a new quality of perception is made possible. If you only see with one eye, the ability to see in three dimensions is lost. Unilateral damage to the primary visual cortex leads, as already mentioned, to hemianopsia, damage to the secondary and tertiary projection centers to so-called gnostic deficits (agnosia). The anatomical-topographical localization of the primary projection centers in the posterior (parietal, temporal and occipital) brain segments, i.e. H. Behind the central sulcus , the blueprint of the spinal cord is repeated at the level of the brain, see the concept of the reflex arc . Our consciousness therefore primarily allows a controlled and considered action, i. H. taking into account the most varied of perceptions and memories.

The tertiary cortex
is responsible for the integration of various sensory modalities (areas 39 and 40 - angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus as a transition region between the secondary visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic association areas).

Apraxias can be caused by possible disturbances in the sensory projection centers. Such a disturbance also has a necessary effect on the motor centers, which are dependent on appropriate information (or sensory afferents). Motor centers such as the language center can also themselves be affected by damage. A distinction must therefore be made between sensory and motor apraxia, see e.g. B. Aphasia and the delimitation of motor and sensory forms of aphasia, see also the term “chain of perception ” explained below .

Due to the complex connection of different sensory functions in the brain, perception is possible as a conscious process in contrast to the more simply structured neurophysiological processes on the level of the spinal cord and the brain stem , see → Functional circuit . The concept of the chain of perception must therefore be contrasted with the reflex arc, an organizational principle that enables stimuli to be processed automatically and unconsciously at the level of the spinal cord. The reflex arc represents, so to speak, the “small official path” at a lower level of organization. In connection with the higher cerebral organization, K. Jaspers spoke of a “psychological reflex arc”, Viktor von Weizsäcker of Gestaltkreis . In technology, use is made of this biological organizational principle through the model of the control loop , cf. Synergetics .

The chain of perception

The chain of perception

The chain of perception as a model of perception (1956 with John Raymond Smythies : "causal chain of perception and action") is based on the juxtaposition of a perceptual apparatus and an external world. The chain consists of six links, each of which has an influence on its subsequent link and is involved in every type of perception in exactly this order. It is self-contained, i. H. the sixth link in turn influences the first link in the chain:

The objects in the outside world generate signals, e.g. B. They reflect electromagnetic waves or they vibrate and thus generate sound . Gustav Theodor Fechner called such a signal, which is based on the properties of the object and does not require an observer, " distal stimulus ". Distal stimuli are i. A. physically measurable quantities ; Exceptions are explored by parapsychology under the term extra-sensory perception .
Transduction, transformation
A distal stimulus hits the sensory cells (also sensors or receptor cells), where it becomes a proximal stimulus through interaction with them . Sensors are specialized cells in the body that are excited by certain stimuli. They convert different types of energy (such as light, sound, pressure) into changes in voltage, a process called transduction . For example, when certain electromagnetic waves hit the eye's photosensors , they trigger a receptor potential there via a chemical amplification cascade. Receptor potentials are then either in the cell itself ( primary sensory cell ) or, as in the retina of the eye, whose sensors represent secondary sensory cells , after synaptic transfer to a nerve cell, recoded into sequences of action potentials: transformation . Sensors are mostly embedded in special biological structures that expand their capabilities as sensory organs , e.g. B. as mobility of the eyeball or as a funnel effect of the auricles.
In the sense organ itself, there is often massive preprocessing of the received signals, but especially in all subsequent core areas of the brain, including filtering , inhibition , convergence, divergence, integration, summation and numerous top-down processes . Example: The photoreceptors of the eye are only sensitive to a small section of the electromagnetic spectrum, due to the absorption mechanism of the photosensors. This results in a filter function for electromagnetic waves in the wavelength range from approx. 400 - 800 nm; the photosensors influence each other via neural networks in the retina of the eye (e.g. in the case of lateral inhibition ). This results in a contrast enhancement function. 126 million receptor cells converge to 1 million ganglion cells by creating receptive fields of variable sizes. As the brightness decreases, the receptive fields are increased. This results in a low-pass filter function depending on the brightness. The first central switching station of the optic nerve after conduction from the retina, the corpus geniculatum laterale , serves, among other things, as an information filter. This can be indirectly concluded from the fact that it receives more input from the cortex than from the eye (integration), etc.
The next step is to become aware of the perception ( cognition ): sound becomes sound or noise, electromagnetic radiation becomes light, etc.
Processes such as remembering, combining, recognizing, associating, assigning and judging lead to an understanding of what is perceived and form the basis for reactions to the distal stimulus. These processes do not have to lead to a clearly delineated mental image , sensations such as hunger , pain or fear are also the result of cognition. What is seldom pointed out is the fact that neurophysiology has not yet been able to give an undisputed answer to the central question of consciousness : Up to now, “nobody has even a glimmer of an idea what the physical principles are, on the basis of which the brain develops psychological phenomena brings forth ”(Mausfeld, 2005, p. 63). Dietrich Dörner, however, vehemently contradicts this thesis in “Blueprint for a soul” (2008, 25 ff).
The ultimate result of perception is the reaction to the environment. The reaction may not initially appear to be part of the perception, but it must be added at least in part. The reason is that many reactions aim to influence the next iteration of the perception chain by making new properties of the environment accessible to perception (e.g. eye movement, scanning a surface). The perception generally works veridically , i. H. There is a causal , understandable connection between a stimulus and its representation in the brain . If a link in the chain of perception is disturbed, there can be contradictions between the stimulus and the perception triggered by it, and one speaks of disturbed perception. If the result of the perception process does not correspond to reality , although the perception chain works without any problems, one speaks of a perception illusion . These deceptions are extensively researched in psychology, because they provide direct information about the functioning of the perceptual apparatus.

The connection between the most important terms should be clarified using the following specific example:

A chimney fire transmits radiation, sound and chemical substances (all of them properties ( physical quantities ) for which we have sensory organs), so the chimney fire is a distal stimulus . Since the signals sent are sensors , e.g. B. in the retina of the eye to stimulate the reaction, these are the stimuli light, warmth, sounds and smells. The entirety of what we perceive from the fireplace forms the proximal stimulus , which is passed on to the sensory centers by our sensory nerves as percepts such as “yellow to red colors, flickering movement, average temperature, crackling, odor-effective aromas x, y and z” . Although the outlines of the chimney are curved on the retina, it is perceived veridically as rectangular. Finally, the perception is connected to the memories "fire" and "fireplace" through cognition, combined to form "fire in the fireplace", recognized as "open fire", associated with "November 1968" and "Lisa" and as "very pleasant" assesses and thus forms the basis for our reaction.

Sensory perceptions

Sense of man

Overview of the human senses

A distinction is made between the following human sensory perceptions :

Broad sense of living beings

There are other sensory perceptions in the animal world:

  • Perception of pressure at a distance, also distance tactile sense : common among fish. A combination of auditory and tactile perception. Used to perceive changes in pressure under water and at a distance. The responsible sensory organ is the lateral line organ .
  • Perception of electrical fields : Represented by some predatory fish ( e.g. hammerhead sharks ). Not comparable to a human sensory perception. Serves the perception of electrical fields as they are generated by living beings.
  • Magnetic sense , that is, perception of magnetic fields . Common in migratory birds , but also in other animals and bacteria . Used to perceive the earth's magnetic field for navigation . The responsible sense organs have not yet been identified beyond doubt; in migratory birds the magnetic sense was localized in the eye and in the upper beak. Strong alternating magnetic fields cause noticeable vibrations in the human eye and thus a deterioration in visual acuity. At least the presence of such a field can be perceived physically.
  • Thermal perception : very pronounced e.g. B. with snakes. A comparable sensory perception is given in humans by the cold and heat receptors of the skin. Used to perceive differences in temperature and heat conduction . With pit vipers , the corresponding organ is the pit organ .
  • Vibratory perception : also perception of vibrations, very pronounced in cats, insects and spiders. A comparable sensory perception exists as part of tactile perception to a lesser extent in humans, so vibrations in the infrasound range in particular cancause noticeable discomfort. The name of the responsible sensory organ is not known, but in snakes it is on the belly side and in spiders in the limbs. The organ of equilibrium could also play a role in humans.

The question of the sensory perceptions of plants and lower living beings is quite controversial due to the lack of a nervous system.

Furthermore, there is the following form of perception, which is not understood as sensory perception, but as cognitive perception:

  • Time perception : Time perception only arises through cognitive processes. In humans, a distinction is made between the two forms of perception of the temporal sequence (sequence) and the perception of time intervals .


The term cognition means the entirety of all psychological abilities, functions and processes that serve to receive, process and store information. Those who already know in advance what they are about to see will recognize it more quickly. The human brain works extremely fast.

Time perception

Time is an abstract but real property of the environment (see above). The basic information about this property is obtained through the senses. That is why the perception of time is a real form of perception. However, it is not a matter of sensory perception, because the perception of time only arises through cognitive processes.

Explanatory models

It is difficult to describe the process of perception in a general way, as it can be fundamentally different from person to person; so too have as many mental illnesses their roots in a disturbed perception .

Organizational principles of perception

The organizational principles of perception are understood to be some regularities and empirical values ​​according to which the structuring process of perception classifies the stimuli received .

The organizational principles can be demonstrated particularly easily where the physical (objectively given) and the phenomenal (felt, perceived) facts do not match.

These principles make it clear that both perception and its constant adaptation to changing stimulus conditions in humans does not take place through imaging, but through a constructive, cognitive processing process.

Context dependency

The right orange circle appears larger than the left, even though their size is the same.

Objects are always perceived in the context of their surroundings. In the example graphic, the blue ball on the right appears larger than the one on the left, although their size is identical. The context can change not only the perception of size, but also the meaning or function of what is perceived. Context dependency becomes clear when an object is removed from its usual context and placed in an atypical context.

For example, a ship in the water is an everyday occurrence, a ship in a meadow on the other hand would immediately draw our perception is - to attention to excite; an effect that advertising likes to use for itself.

The context dependency does not only apply to visual perception. Studies have shown that the perception of consonance or dissonance in music is also dependent on the piece of music, the location, the performer, etc., so that the perception of dissonances or consonances can be reassessed depending on the circumstances.

Influence of experience

If contradicting information has to be processed, the brain prefers the most probable interpretation by comparing it with already stored, (learned) experiences (transactionalism).

Filter effects

The sense organs only take in part of the possible stimuli. In addition, each perception is first examined for its benefit in the sensory memory. Only when it appears relevant does it get into short-term memory, where it is processed further.

During further processing, this information is broken down into smaller units, processed separately (amplified, weakened, evaluated) and brought together again in different brain areas. A distinction can be made between different cognitive assessment programs:

  • Attribute dominance: Here, a perceived characteristic is decisive for forming an opinion ;
  • Irradiation : Here, the quality of other features is deduced from the property of a feature. For example, broad car tires indicate a powerful engine.
  • Halo effect (from halo = halo): According to this, the perception of individual attributes is determined by an already formed judgment . So z. B. newly received information is interpreted in such a way that it confirms the judgment. On the other hand, properties that contradict this pre-judgment are undervalued, or even completely ignored.

Further reasons to perceive or not perceive a stimulus more strongly are personal interests, expectations, conscious focus and protective mechanisms such as repression.


Some sensory impressions are linked to an emotion (fear, joy, fright, etc.). This evaluation influences the directing of attention to certain sensory stimuli.

Changes in perception

Perception can be influenced by the following factors:

Perception development

Ontogenetic development of the senses

The sense of touch
The sense of touch develops from the 2nd month of pregnancy . At birth, the child feels temperature differences, dry air, movement from the carer
The sense of taste, gustatory perception
The development of the sense of taste begins in the 3rd month of pregnancy. This is fully developed at birth.
The sense of smell , olfactory system .
The sense of movement (kinesthetic system)
From the 3rd month of pregnancy, the sense of support and movement develops .
The sense of balance
The equilibrium system is established in the 3rd to 4th month of pregnancy and is fully developed around the 6th month of pregnancy.
  • This sense becomes active immediately after birth
  • It is the most important requirement for motor development.
  • In the first year of life, the sense of balance enables the ability to walk and stand upright.
The sense of hearing
The sense of hearing works in the 7th month of pregnancy and thus some time before the birth . Overall, hearing is extremely efficient even after birth. The child already hears very differentiated tones and different pitches.
  • The mother's voice can already be heard in the womb.
  • The child hears the sound of his mother's voice and its volume long before it understands the meaning of the words.
The sense of sight
In the 8th month of pregnancy, the sense of sight begins to develop. After about two months, the ability to adjust the eyes to different distances is developed.
  • Newborns already differentiate between light and dark and can see relatively clearly at a distance of 20 to 40 cm.
  • By seeing with both eyes , spatial vision and the associated depth perception develop.
  • A child can perceive the depths of a room at around two years of age.
  • At around 4 years of age, the child can see depths and distances as well as an adult.
  • However, on average, perspective drawing is only possible for children around the age of 12.

Theoretical approaches to developing perception

According to Affolter

Félicie Affolter , a student of Piaget , distinguished three stages in the development of perception in 1975. These three levels indicate how perceptual stimuli are processed.

The simplest stage is the modal development stage. In this, stimuli are initially processed unspecifically, but then increasingly differentiated and separated from one another. Infants can distinguish between different voices and recognize certain melodies. Affolter calls the next level the intermodal level. Here, stimuli from different channels combine to form a representation. From a certain age, the baby can connect the mother's voice and face. The third level, the serial level, integrates different stimuli in temporal and spatial representations and links them to form meaningful wholes.

Affolter can hardly provide more than an abstract model. An infant usually reacts to a sound with movements from the very beginning, and it is not possible to define sufficiently whether these are just reflexes or whether a learning process has already taken place.

Herbert Günter (1998) notes: “These are (...) phases that are nested in one another (...). The individual, isolated information without any relationship or connection to other sensory channels is meaningless. "

More important, however, are the assumptions that Anna Jean Ayres made in 1984 about the further development of sensory integration: These lead to the development of complex systems, so-called higher brain functions, which make coordinated behavior and ultimately goal-directed and systematic action possible.

After Ayres

Anna Jean Ayres sets up the following model, which explains the development of higher brain functions from basic perceptual processes: Sensory integration (according to AYRES) .jpg

  • Ayre's model, however, only claims that this is how complex brain functions are built up. She has no real explanation of how it takes place.
  • Another model, both of its structure and with the same problems of proof, comes from Alexander Romanowitsch Lurija (1970).

See also


  • Martin Burckhardt : Metamorphoses of space and time. A story of perception. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1997, ISBN 3-593-35784-4 .
  • Erhard Fischer: Promotion of perception: action and sensual knowledge in children and young people. Borgmann, Dortmund 2003, ISBN 3-86145-164-6 .
  • E. Bruce Goldstein: Perceptual Psychology. Spectrum, Heidelberg 2002, ISBN 3-8274-1083-5 .
  • Karl R. Gegenfurtner: Brain & Perception. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 3-596-15564-9 .
  • James Jerome Gibson : The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. (German: The senses and the process of perception. Huber, Bern 1973, ISBN 3-456-30586-9 .)
  • James Jerome Gibson: The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. German: perception and environment. Urban & Schwarzenberg, Munich 1982, ISBN 3-541-09931-3 .
  • Nicole Hendriks, Manuela Freitag: Sensory Integration. In: Kartin Zimmermann-Kogel, Norbert Kühne : Practical book social pedagogy. Volume 1. Bildungsverlag EINS, Troisdorf 2005, ISBN 3-427-75409-X .
  • Rainer Lutz, Norbert Kühne: Promotion of the senses. In: Praxisbuch Sozialpädagogik. Volume 6, Bildungsverlag EINS, Troisdorf 2008, ISBN 978-3-427-75414-5 , pp. 7-38.
  • Joachim Küpper, Christoph Menke (Ed.): Dimensions of aesthetic experience. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 3-518-29240-4 .
  • Rainer Mausfeld , Onur Güntürkün : Science in conflict. In: brain and mind. No. 7-8, 2005.
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty : Phenomenology of Perception. de Gruyter, Berlin 1976, ISBN 3-11-006884-2 .
  • Eva Schürmann : Seeing as Practice. Ethical-aesthetic studies on the relationship between sight and insight. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-29490-1 .

Web links

Commons : Perception  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Perception  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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