Adaptation and Selective Attention

An individual's response to a stimulus may change over time. For example, when a swimmer first enters the cold ocean, the initial response may be to complain about the water's frigidity; however, after a few minutes, the water feels comfortable. This is an example of sensory adaptation—the body's ability to diminish sensitivity to stimuli that are unchanging. Sensory receptors are initially alert to the coldness of the water, but prolonged exposure reduces sensitivity. This is an important benefit to humans in that it allows an individual not to be distracted by constant stimuli that are uninformative. It would be very difficult to function daily if one's body were constantly aware of the fit of shoes and garments, the rumble of a heating system, or constant street noises.

The reception of sensory information by the senses, and the transmission of this information to the brain, is included under the term "sensation." Of equal importance is the process of perception: the way an individual selects information, organizes it, and makes an interpretation. In this manner, one achieves a grasp of one's surroundings. People cannot absorb and understand all the available sensory information received from the environment. Thus, they must selectively attend to certain information and disregard other material. Through the process of selective attention, people are able to maximize information gained from the object of focus while at the same time ignoring irrelevant material. To some degree, people are capable of controlling the focus of their attention; in many instances, however, focus can be shifted undesirably. For example, while one is watching a television show, extraneous stimuli such as a car horn blaring may change one's focus.

The fundamental focus of the study of perception is how people come to comprehend the world around them through its objects and events. People are constantly giving meaning to a host of stimuli being received from all their senses. While research suggests that people prize visual stimuli above other forms, information from all other senses must also be processed. More difficult to understand is the concept of extrasensory perception (ESP). More researchers are becoming interested in the possible existence of extrasensory perception—perceptions that are not based on information from the sensory receptors. Often included under the heading of ESP are such questionable abilities as clairvoyance and telepathy. While psychologists generally remain skeptical as to the existence of ESP, some do not deny that evidence may someday be available supporting its existence.

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