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Sensation, Perception, and the Aging Process

Sensation, Perception, and the Aging Process

Professor Francis B. Colavita Ph.D.
University of Pittsburgh
Course No.  1546
Course No.  1546
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Why is it that we react to the world the way we do, not only in similar ways—turning our heads in the direction of a tap on the shoulder or a sudden movement in our peripheral vision, for example—but often in dramatically different ways as well?

What causes us to gasp in startled fear at sharp sound that our spouse, even though blessed with excellent hearing, appears to barely notice? Why do children twist their faces in disgust when asked to sample the smallest bite of their parents' most recent culinary addiction? How is it that the physically adventurous young person you remember being—the one whose greatest passion was riding the scariest roller coaster imaginable—somehow grew into an adult whose stomach begins to churn nervously at even the

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Why is it that we react to the world the way we do, not only in similar ways—turning our heads in the direction of a tap on the shoulder or a sudden movement in our peripheral vision, for example—but often in dramatically different ways as well?

What causes us to gasp in startled fear at sharp sound that our spouse, even though blessed with excellent hearing, appears to barely notice? Why do children twist their faces in disgust when asked to sample the smallest bite of their parents' most recent culinary addiction? How is it that the physically adventurous young person you remember being—the one whose greatest passion was riding the scariest roller coaster imaginable—somehow grew into an adult whose stomach begins to churn nervously at even the thought of such a ride?

The answer, of course, is that each of us—whether a different person or a more recent model of ourselves—isn't reacting to the same world at all.

Though the physical world we occupy may be identical, the reality we experience —the perceptions created when our brains combine the input from our senses with past encounters with those same inputs—is very different. And this is true not only from one person to another, but within the same individual, as well. For our various sensory systems can be altered over time, their acuity changing in response to aging or injury, life experiences, evolving personalities, and other factors.

Rich in science and potent examples and anecdotes, Sensation, Perception, and the Aging Process is a course that takes a distinct approach to the understanding of human behavior—which is, after all, always a reaction to a sensory stimulus.

Learn How We Navigate and Make Sense of Our World

In 24 fascinating lectures, Professor Francis Colavita offers a biopsychological perspective on the way we humans navigate and react to the world around us in a process that is ever-changing. Our experiences are vastly different today than they were when we were children and our senses and brains were still developing; and those experiences are becoming ever more different as we age, when natural changes alert us to the need to compensate, often in ways that are quite positive.

For example, children have many more taste receptors than adults, so they are more taste sensitive. Therefore it's both ironic and understandable that children often prefer bland food drawn from a small list of favorites to avoid being overwhelmed. Adults, on the other hand, lose taste receptors as they age, so getting older often moves us in the opposite direction, prompting us to try new varieties of ethnic cuisines and spicier foods.

One of the delights of this course is the balance of the real-life examples Professor Colavita gives and the crisp presentation of the physiological systems that explain those examples.

How do our sensory systems gather and process raw information from the world, enabling us to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch? How do we keep our balance? Or understand exactly where we are in space, so that we can reach for our morning coffee cup and not close our hands around empty space?

How do our bodies create motor memories that allow us to learn and then automatically perform the most complex tasks—such as the laboriously practiced elements of a golf swing—in one smoothly executed motion, or run through a series of rapid gear shifts while driving on a winding mountain road?

What sort of sensory system allows us to feel pain but also works to protect us from its most intense levels?

Whether exploring the complex structures of the brain or inner ear, explaining with compassion the animal experiments that have given us so much knowledge of sensory systems, or using humorous personal anecdotes to illustrate a point, Professor Colavita delivers a course that informs, entertains, and even prepares us for the changes that lie ahead.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Sensation, Perception, and Behavior
    In addition to presenting an overview of the course, this lecture offers a brief introduction to psychology in general and Behaviorism in particular. It distinguishes between the physical, sensory, and perceptual worlds and introduces the distinction between a sensation and a perception. x
  • 2
    Sensation and Perception—A Distinction
    We learn that the brain is the organ of perception. Beginning in infancy, experiences stored in our brains determine the meanings that sensory events will have for us and that shape our behavior. x
  • 3
    Vision—Stimulus and the Optical System
    We begin learning how our sensory systems do their job of transducing energy from the physical world into language the brain understands—electrochemical activity—starting with the visual system. x
  • 4
    Vision—The Retina
    This lecture explains the contributions that rods and cones—the human retina's two types of receptors—make to normal vision, including visual acuity and sensitivity. x
  • 5
    Vision—Beyond the Optic Nerve
    We look at the role played by the visual information processing centers of the brain in orienting and reacting to objects in space; identifying those objects; and determining their shape, form, color, and size. We also explore the consequences of damage to these processing centers. x
  • 6
    Vision—Age-Related Changes
    This lecture describes how the supporting structures, receptors, and neural elements of the visual system undergo progressive physical changes related to the aging process, and how, as a consequence of these changes, vision is affected in predictable ways as we grow older. x
  • 7
    Hearing—Stimulus and Supporting Structures
    What we call sound is the brain's response to small, rapid, in-and-out movements of the eardrums produced by pressure variations in air molecules. We examine how the supporting structures of the outer and inner ear begin the hearing process. x
  • 8
    Hearing—The Inner Ear
    This lecture explains how the transduction process is accomplished by the auditory receptors, known as hair cells, as well as the difference between the two mechanisms by which sounds from the environment reach those cells. x
  • 9
    Hearing—Age-Related Changes
    We look at several causes of age-related hearing loss, including changes in the ear canal and eardrum, degeneration of the temporal bone, reduced electrical output in the cochlea, progressive death of hair cells, and degeneration of the auditory nerve. x
  • 10
    The Cutaneous System—Receptors, Pathways
    Experimental examination of our skin sense goes back more than 150 years, but the workings—and importance—of the cutaneous system turn out to be significantly more complicated than those original experiments suggested. x
  • 11
    The Cutaneous System—Early Development
    This lecture presents an overview of the research indicating the importance of cutaneous stimulation—especially tactile stimulation—to normal growth and development. x
  • 12
    The Cutaneous System—Age-Related Changes
    Although there are decreases in cutaneous sensitivity that come with age, most have little effect on normal daily living. In fact, tactile stimulation is as important to young and old adults as it is to infants and children. x
  • 13
    Pain—Early History
    Although we learn more each year about pain, many aspects of the topic still remain a puzzle, for example, "good pain" versus "bad pain," the placebo effect, and cultural conditioning. x
  • 14
    Pain—Acupuncture, Endorphins, and Aging
    This second lecture on pain examines a once-controversial technique, explores a possible explanation for its effectiveness, and looks at how age affects our ability to feel different kinds of pain. x
  • 15
    Taste—Stimulus, Structures, and Receptors
    This introduction to the subject of taste looks at how the body gathers taste-related sensory data and why we have natural preferences for certain tastes. x
  • 16
    Taste—Factors Influencing Preferences
    In general, people are born with the same innate taste preferences. Yet by adulthood, people around the world have such different taste preferences that it is difficult to believe those preferences were ever similar. We look at why this is so. x
  • 17
    Smell—The Unappreciated Sense
    When asked which of their senses they would miss the least, many people choose smell. As this lecture shows, however, smell is far more important for humans than we realize. x
  • 18
    Smell—Consequences of Anosmia
    What would it mean to lose the sense of smell? Research findings show the impact might be greater than we imagine. x
  • 19
    The Vestibular System—Body Orientation
    In studying this little-known system, we learn about the components of the inner ear that the body depends upon to respond to and identify changes in our position in space. x
  • 20
    The Kinesthetic Sense—Motor Memory
    Although often referred to as "muscle memory," our kinesthetic sense is much more. It sends to the brain continuous sensory feedback from receptors located not only in the muscles but also in our tendons, ligaments, and joints. x
  • 21
    Brain Mechanisms and Perception
    Evolution has not replaced the older parts of our brain but has simply added new parts. The old ones retain their original functions, while our higher mental processes, including perception, reside in our newest part, the cerebral cortex. x
  • 22
    Perception of Language
    Language is made up of verbal auditory stimuli that have become charged with meaning. It is so critical to humans that it occupies two areas of the brain, one for producing speech and one for comprehending it. x
  • 23
    The Visual Agnosias
    The complex way different "visual association areas" in the brain allow it to integrate sensory data and memory into visual images can occasionally produce extraordinary kinds of deficits. x
  • 24
    Perception of Other People/Course Summary
    This final lecture describes some factors in how we perceive other people and presents a general summary of the course. Finally, it looks at current research and trends in the field of sensation and perception. x

Lecture Titles

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Francis B. Colavita
Ph.D. Francis B. Colavita
University of Pittsburgh
Dr. Francis Colavita was Emeritus Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he taught for more than 40 years. He also held an adjunct faculty position at Florida Atlantic University. He earned his B.A. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Maryland and his Ph.D. in Physiological Psychology from the University of Indiana. He went on to complete a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the Center for Neural Sciences. Professor Colavita's teaching excellence was rewarded with five teaching awards, including the prestigious Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award. This is the highest award for teaching excellence bestowed by the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Colavita published more than 30 scholarly articles in the areas of sensory processes, perception, and recovery of function following brain damage. He was the author of the book, Sensory Changes in the Elderly. Dr. Colavita passed away in early 2009.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 38 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very Interesting Material This 24 lecture course covers in detail the subject of human perception, meaning essentially the various “senses” including sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, balance, memory, language and facial recognition. The course is a wonderful balance of amazing anatomical detail and psychology. It discusses how these senses generally change over time and how they are affected when they are injured. Totally fascinating. June 15, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Interesting, well-presented but some caveats I am a former college psychology major who went on to obtain a doctorate in clinical psychology and work in that field. I purchased this course to brush up on the subjects of sensation/perception, which I had not studied since college and especially to learn about the aging process.On the plus side, the material was interesting, easy to listen to, and easy to understand. Dr. Colavita peppers his explanations with many vivid and memorable illustrations from both the research literature and personal experience. He does a terrific job--far better than the typical psychology textbook--of explaining the anatomy of the sensory organs and how these systems work. I found that so much more is known now about this subject than when I was in school that a substantial amount of the material was new to me. On the minus side, I thought that the presentation was somewhat redundant and that information about the aging process seemed an after thought and not well integrated. I would have appreciated a more vivid and integrated picture of the sensory-perceptual world of the older adult, the kind of information that can correct misunderstandings, prepare us for aging and facilitate better cross-generational understanding and empathy. As Dr. Colavita was quite candid about his own senior status and was open about bringing his personal experience to bear on illustrating the basic sensory processes, I am sure that were he to give more attention to aging, he could provide unique and memorable insights. May 22, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by The seven(!) senses reviewed Dr. Colavita's course on sensation and perception was fascinating for a whole host of reasons. Much of what was covered in this course I had learned about before, but Dr. Colavita covers it with clear explanation and presents wonderful new insights. There are some hiccups along the road, but I recommend this course highly. Listeners and viewers should know what they're getting into before buying, though.... Course presentation: Dr. Colavita's presentation was, at first, rather trying. It took me a couple of lectures to get used to his style, but by about lecture 3, it was no longer bothering me. Dr. Colavita has a slight verbal tick, which is distracting only because it is relatively infrequent. He occasionally overemphasizes the end of random words. At first, I thought he was deliberately emphasizing words for meaning. However, it eventually became clear that the words are random and it is merely a verbal tick. Initially, I found Dr. Colavita's humor to be a little odd. I have a dry sense of humor myself, but Dr. Colavita's is desiccated. Eventually, you do realize when he's joking, and his jokes are quite funny. But, again, it takes a bit of getting used to. By the third or fourth lecture, I wasn't distracted by his presentation, and found myself chuckling at his jokes. When he tells the chocolate story, I suspect you'll be laughing out loud. Content: The content is outstanding. As others have noted, this is an introductory course, and the content is relatively shallow. Nevertheless, it is broad and it is comprehensive. You will get a very good introduction to the seven senses (and here I'd thought there were only five) and you'll appreciate not only how they work, but often how they fail. He also introduces a number of fascinating aspects of each sense that go completely unnoticed by us, but are often critical to function. The failures of these unnoticed aspects are often catastrophic. Learning about these aspects of both sense and cognition was fascinating. Dr. Colavita's description of our sense of smell is particularly fascinating, since this is an area that few of us pay any attention to. This course will teach you why we should pay lots more attention to it! A warning: Dr. Colavita does describe a number of (many) experiments, usually animal but even some older human experiments, that are disturbing to hear. The description of the experiments is not pointless, however. The results highlight some aspect of either sense or pathology that is part and parcel of the content of the course. In addition, it's clear that much of our understanding of how our senses work was facilitated if not totally dependent on research of this kind. In general, I'm no defender of animal experimentation and I suspect that animal experimentation is badly overused. But we shouldn't turn our backs on research that has already been done, however horrible it was. However, be prepared for these descriptions and know that you'll need to suppress an emotional reaction to understand the results as dispassionately as possible. Updates: This course was recorded in 2006, and Dr. Colavita gives us an overview of some of the directions that research was heading at that point in time. It's a shame that Dr. Colavita will never get a chance to update the course. (He and his wife were killed by a drunk driver in Florida in 2009.) I am fascinated by two areas of research that Dr. Colavita mentions but which have been much further advanced in the last 8 years. When Dr. Colavita talks about pain perception, he discusses situations in which pain is actually good. One area being actively researched today is the role of mother's pain during childbirth. It's now clear that the experience of pain promotes the release of endorphins and a whole series of additional hormones. While their roles are still being studied, it may be that mother's pain during childbirth facilitates bonding , milk let-down, baby alertness, and a host of other important aspects of healthy childbirth. Who knew pain could be so positive?! Additionally, there is lots of research ongoing relating to mother-baby identification through smell. Dr. Colavita covers this topic, but much has been learned in the last eight years. (see, e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717541/ ) (I would swear that I saw something about maternal growth of additional smell receptors in advance of birth in order to facilitate baby recognition, but I can't find it now for the life of me. I may have imagined it, or it may have been internet non-sense.) Conclusion: I hope buyers won't be turned off by the descriptions of animal experiments. While they are clearly disturbing, the course content more than makes getting through these descriptions worthwhile. Overall, I highly recommend this course. Don't let Dr. Colavita's mild distractions or the fear of hearing about the dirty business of science experimentation deter you. February 20, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Worth Multiple Listenings This has been one of my favorite TC courses to date. I have listened twice already, and look forward to another round sometime in the future. It influenced the way that I made wine. December 25, 2013
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