In order to understand the world around us, it is absolutely vital that we be mindful of the difference between sensation and perception, as well as the distinct roles these concepts take. In essence, while sensation is a passive process, where information from the world around us is absorbed into our brain without our active engagement, perception relies upon that same engagement to actively organize and interpret stimuli that is being introduced into the brain. While these two concepts combine to form the fundamental way in which we interact with our world, many are left to wonder just what the difference between sensation and perception is. Jung and other prominent psychologists have studied the concepts of perception and sensation at great length, and it is through their theories and scholarship that we can determine the unique and separate attributes of both sensation and perception.
Sensation is the process that we most often use, as it happens without our conscious effort and is primarily a consequence of our experiencing the world around us. Our five senses are evident: smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. We use these sensory organs to absorb energy from different stimuli that surround us in the environment - vibrations create sounds, light reflecting off surfaces inspire vision, and more. This information is translated by our sensory receptors into neural impulses to be sent to the brain, which then offers us the actual sensation we experience.
The various types of sensory receptors combine to form a fully fledged system that offers a comprehensive way to be aware of the world around us. Chemoreceptors, for example, exist in the taste buds and in the olfactory system to aid our senses of taste and smell. Photoreceptors convert light into energy, and are used by the eyes to aid in vision. Mechanoreceptors respond to pressure and other tactile stimuli, aiding in our senses of touch and hearing. Furthermore, thermoreceptors help us determine changes in temperature, which also contributes to touch (Krantz, p. 12.3).
In many ways, perception depends heavily on sensation; the sensation has to occur in order for perception to follow. Our perception takes what we sense and actively engages with it, organizing the information into useful and meaningful to us. While we sense the entire world around us, our focus is on what we perceive. The concept of selective attention deals greatly with how perception is performed by our minds. In essence, when we absorb information, we have to discriminate between what we deem to be important and what is essentially noise to us; our own motivations determine this, for the most part (Krantz, 2009).
Perceptual expectancy is one factor that helps to create that motivation and our criteria for selective attention. In short, our experiences have armed us to expect certain things when we see specific cultural landmarks or familiar scenes. If one were to look down a road, their perceptual expectancy would cause them to look for and expect to see a car or a truck; if an airplane were to be traveling down the highway, it would mess with our perceptual expectancy and possibly be less likely to perceive it. Connecting these ideas, perceptual expectancy builds over time with our experiences, informing our selective attention and often determining the difference between what we sense and what we perceive (Krantz, 2009).
Jung's concepts of psychology relate mostly to the connection between sensation and perception. According to Jung, there are many layers to the mind, the conscious mind only being the topmost, most visible one - “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals” (Jung 1996, p. 43). The collective unconscious is the segment of the unconscious mind that is thought to be shared amongst all different people and experiences. The ego does not recognize them, as they merely inform from the sidelines the basic behavior patterns of an individual. There is a shared, universal set of experiences that is found in many, if not all, individuals, which is inherited from person to person, and through societal norms. In essence, there are quite a few things about the unconscious mind that are universal to everyone existing; effectively, all human beings can and will experience the collective unconscious (Jung, 1996).
In essence, the collective unconscious is one of the many ways in which we sense things. In a collective unconscious, all of the experiences and symbols that are found and created in human life are stored and ordered. Instead of that being entirely spiritual or supernatural (having a real, single consciousness from which people metaphysically derive their thought processes), there is a component of biological predisposition as well. (Jung, 1996).
Within the collective unconscious, archetypes exist - these are the patterns that help to organize and structure the way in which we think and perceive reality. Each unique concept of religion, mythology or symbolism is an archetype, and part of the collective consciousness dictates that we have the same archetypes that are recognized universally. Archetypes form the basis for unconscious experience, as they provide the memes that everyone is aware of. While the collective unconscious is the blanket term for the experiences that are shared between everyone, each individual experience is an archetype (Jung, 1996).
Archetypes themselves are one of the most important facets of Jungian analytical psychology, which determines how we perceive people as well as the environment around us. The five primary archetypes described in Jungian psychology include the self, the shadow, the anima and animus, and the persona. In the case of the Self, this is what holds the various aspects of the psyche together and allows it to form a personality that is conscious and aware. The anima and animus are the feminine and masculine parts of women and men, respectively - those basic traits that help to define the essential behaviors of either gender. There is also the persona, which is more or less the idealized version of the self; the positive version of a person that they choose to define for themselves. It guards the ego from negative self-image, and masks what is often true about the person themselves (Jung, 1996).
In order to fully understand how we perceive, Gestalt psychology must be explored in depth. According to Gestalt psychology, there are several principles of perceptual organization that are often used when we perceive something. First, there is the figure-ground: in order to perceive something, we usually compare the figure to the "ground" (the background) surrounding it. By understanding the difference between these two objects, we perceive the figure more readily. Secondly, the simplicity or pragnanz revolves around grouping elements that create good form together. Examples of this include Internet smilies, in which three or more different shapes come together to form a singular object we perceive. Thirdly, proximity helps us perceive things which are closer to us; also, things that are closer together we tend to group together by default, perceiving them as similar (Bruce et al., p. 110).
The fourth Gestalt principle is similarity - like proximity, we tend to group objects together that look and seem similar. Grouping things by shapes is one of the simplest ways in which we perceive, and most of us get that pretty early. Continuity allows us to start with a shape and follow its natural progression as we are led through it. Common fate has us group together objects that move in a similar pattern, like a flock of geese or a marching band. Finally, our mind likes to close gaps and fill in information, bringing us closure. These seven important principles are some of the more basic types of ways in which we perceive; these triggers key our selective attention to finish or continue the pattern. Toward that end, we are not simply sensing, but engaging actively with our brains toward whatever we are seeing or otherwise experiencing (Bruce et al., p. 110).
Sometimes, our sense of perception plays tricks on us and distorts our visual sensations, creating illusions like the Muller-Lyer effect. In this phenomenon, a picture of stylized arrows (on the end of three straight lines) is shown and people must determine where the midpoint of this picture is. However, the trick to the illusion is that all three lines are the same length, and the "midpoint" is often perceived as being on the tail end of each line. This is an optical illusion that plays with our sense of perception, and shows how perspective and distance can often be mistaken when one does not have the appropriate perceptual expectancy. By examining the effect of this particular illusion on people, many psychologists have come closer to understanding how perspective plays on our perception (Gregory, 1966).
In conclusion, the difference between sensation and perception is great, though both concepts are extremely interrelated. Sensation involves the physical and neurological process by which we accept stimuli into our systems; perception, meanwhile, involves our brains actively engaging with that information and organizing it into usable data that informs our decisions and experiences. Jung's notion of the collective unconscious is an important part of perception, as it creates a shorthand of human experience (through archetypes and the like) that allow us to contextualize data. Gestalt psychology brings us the various mechanics behind how we complete patterns and perceive said data, forming personal realities that are greater than the sum of their parts. By understanding these fundamental ideas, we have a better notion of how we look at the world and how we interact with it.
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