Psychology takes an avid interest in human cognition that studies an individual’s psychological functions from the standpoint of information processing. Sensation and perception are two concepts that are useful for understanding human cognition. They explain a variety of phenomena such as the diversity of interpretations based on individuals’ perceptions. It is not uncommon for perception to be a source of prejudice and discrimination. This essay argues that the subjectivity of perception may as well be responsible for many social ills and malaises.
Sensation and Perception
The two basic psychological concepts, sensation and perception are closely interrelated. In humans, sensory receptors comprise specialized neurons that react to different types of stimuli. The occurrence of sensation is triggered when a sensory receptor detects new information. For example, if an individual hears a fire alarm, even before he or she understands what happened, the sound is translated through the tiny hair-like receptors, known as cilia, inside the inner ear. Not all sensations are available to humans since there is an absolute threshold, or a necessary intensity of a stimulus, for the human brain to detect it. However, the senses that humans have are enough to navigate the world, avoid danger, and proceed to safety.
The perception process organizes and understands the chaos of incoming sensory information. Not all sensations are equally helpful, and for them to become such, one needs to assign them meaning. It is a perception that allows a person to conclude that the loud noise that they are hearing is a fire alarm. The subsequent conclusions may be that there is a fire to proximity and the situation may pose a threat to one’s health and possessions. Perception differs from person to person because it draws on available knowledge, experience, personal views, and psychological characteristics. While one person may disregard the fire alarm, another one, who was a fire victim in the past, maybe more likely to have a strong emotional reaction and turn to action immediately. In other words, perception occurs from sensations but not all sensations eventually become perception.
The Influence of Perceptual Experiences on Human Interpretation
Perceptual experience is built when a person’s internal beliefs find their justification in the external world. Multiple studies demonstrate that adverse early childhood experiences have a profound impact on adult life and its outcomes. Barrios et al. (2015) find that any type of childhood abuse was associated with an almost 220% increase in the probability of falling victim to intimate partner violence (IPV). In women, the odds are even higher: if they were abused in childhood, their chances of suffering from IPV are 3.3 times higher than in women with no such history. Barrios et al. (2015) argue that such a correlation is not coincidental. When maltreated since childhood, individuals form an often subconscious belief of their unworthiness, which makes them avoid partners who would truly care about them. Another interpretation explains that the constant exposure to abusive behaviors in the family may normalize them for the victim. Hence, if they notice the same patterns in how their intimate partners treat them, they perceive it as something normal in close relationships.
Another example of perceptual experience forming human interpretation is a psychological condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children who grow up in regions with political volatility are exposed to stressful and event violent events daily. Thabet et al. (2016) describe the lives of children in the Gaza Strip, a territory whose population is 50% of people under 15 years old. According to Thabet et al. (2016), there is an ample body of research confirming that the cruelty of military conflict leads to depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation, and PTSD. Such experience may be especially harmful to children who only start to build their understanding of the world based on sensory information and perceptual experiences. Thabet et al. (2015) report that the young residents of the Gaza Strip are already triggered by the sonic sounds of jet fighters and the noise of shootings and bombardments. They will likely associate loud noises with the imminent threat in their adult life, as opposed to those who only learned about military conflicts from books and movies.
Perception as the Source of Prejudice and Discrimination
My perceptual experiences led to the formation of prejudice that I held for some time before reflecting on and eliminating it. I grew up in a homogenous community where people of other religions were extremely uncommon. Therefore, in my childhood and adolescent years, I did not have a lot of exposure to diverse religious beliefs. For instance, the only source of knowledge about Islam was mass media and other people’s opinions. It would be an understatement to say that the media hurts the image of Islam. Popular movies, magazines, and news sources make every Muslim man a potential terrorist and a woman – an oppressed victim of a deeply patriarchal, backward religion. Because of the pervasive panic and hostility, I used to react to Muslim people in the street with caution.
Stereotypes indeed help us navigate the world because they classify all life events and phenomena into neat categories. However, they also make us rigid and set in our beliefs for which we constantly seek confirmation in the outside world. If I saw a Muslim person looking serious, pensive, or angry, I would automatically think that they must be plotting something. With time, I left my “bubble” and had the experience of interacting with people practicing Islam face-to-face. As a result, I stopped seeing them as cartoonish stereotypes and started treating them as unique personalities.
Internal cognitive processes are integral to being a human as they allow the human species to not only react to stimuli but analyze, assign a meaning to, and use them to inform their decisions. Humans are constantly receiving sensory information, some of which become processed and transformed into perception. Perceptual experiences shape one’s outlook on life and direct their course of action. Adverse experiences are especially influential as they may leave a person with several triggers and feelings of unworthiness, which affect their choices. From my personal experiences, I know that many beliefs are formed subconsciously, and later they receive a confirmation in the external world.
Barrios, Y. V., Gelaye, B., Zhong, Q., Nicolaidis, C., Rondon, M. B., Garcia, P. J.,… & Williams, M. A. (2015). Association of childhood physical and sexual abuse with intimate partner violence, poor general health and depressive symptoms among pregnant women. PloS one, 10(1), e0116609.
Thabet, A. M., Thabet, S. S., & Vostanis, P. (2016). The relationship between war trauma, PTSD, depression, and anxiety among Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Health Science Journal, 10(5), 1-8.