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Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception

Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception

Professor Peter M. Vishton Ph.D.
The College of William & Mary
Course No.  1674
Course No.  1674
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Your senses aren't just a part of you—they define you. Nothing that you experience in your life, from the most important to the most mundane, would be possible without the intricate power of your senses. But how much about them do you really know?

Your ability to sense and perceive the world around you is so richly detailed and accurate as to be miraculous. No other animal, no expertly designed supercomputer—nothing in the entire universe of scientific exploration can even come close to matching the ability of your brain to use information sensed by your eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose to produce a rich sensory experience in a matter of milliseconds.

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Your senses aren't just a part of you—they define you. Nothing that you experience in your life, from the most important to the most mundane, would be possible without the intricate power of your senses. But how much about them do you really know?

Your ability to sense and perceive the world around you is so richly detailed and accurate as to be miraculous. No other animal, no expertly designed supercomputer—nothing in the entire universe of scientific exploration can even come close to matching the ability of your brain to use information sensed by your eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose to produce a rich sensory experience in a matter of milliseconds.

And in recent years, neurobiologists and other scientists have uncovered new insights into how your senses work and all the amazingly complex and fascinating things they can do, whether you're aware of them or not. Knowing how your senses work and the ways they shape how you see, interact with, and understand your life will help you think more critically about everything you sense and perceive, strengthen your appreciation for the everyday marvels of your senses, prepare you to be active consumers of new scientific evidence on how our senses work, and much more.

Discover the secret life of your senses with Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception, an intriguing and unforgettable 24-lecture course delivered by award-winning Professor Peter M. Vishton of The College of William & Mary—a masterful educator who has spent several decades immersed in exploring the frontiers of human perception. With him as your authoritative guide, you'll

  • consider each of your senses from a wide range of perspectives,
  • explore how your brain processes different sensory information,
  • consider how your senses work together and within the real-world context of the environment around you, and
  • discover how your senses connect you to the world and to other people.

Discover Why There's More to Your Senses than You Ever Imagined

"Perception feels so easy and functions so automatically that many people assume there must not be much to it," notes Professor Vishton at the start of this course. "Let me assure you that there is." And while this subject is one of great scientific depth, it is made accessible and approachable by Professor Vishton's engaging teaching style and his ability to organize the broad range of information out there into several core areas.

  • Hardware of Sensation and Perception: Key to understanding how perception works is knowing details about the biological "hardware" itself. Professor Vishton gives you a thorough tour of information about your eyes, tongue, ears, skin, and other sensory organs; the neurons that connect with them; and the brain systems that make sense of your surroundings.
  • Visual Perception: Because the vast majority of perception research has been conducted on the sense of vision and because humans are extensively visual creatures, you spend time on fundamental topics in the domain of visual perception. These topics include how you perceive motion, depth, and color.
  • Perceptual Systems and Development: You'll also consider how your perceptual systems develop throughout your life, from infancy to adulthood. Among the subjects you learn about are action control, perception and attention, subliminal perception, and perceptual learning.
  • Your Other Senses: Just as important to a well-rounded grasp of sensation and perception are your other, nonvisual modalities of perception. Professor Vishton offers you an expert's look at our latest knowledge about taste and olfaction, hearing, speech and language perception, touch, kinesthetic perception, and even the perception of pain.
  • Your Senses in the Real World: Finally, you'll see how everything comes together in a series of lectures devoted to real-world situations and interesting topics involving sensation and perception. Professor Vishton discusses illusions, the relationship between perception and emotions, the possibilities of fixing and replacing damaged sensory systems, and more.

Learn Eye-Opening Truths about How You Perceive Your World

In addition to information about how your senses work and interact, Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception is packed with amazing facts that will open your eyes to just how little you thought you knew about such an essential—almost subconscious—part of your daily life. Professor Vishton's highly enjoyable lectures will amaze you with eye-opening truths about how you sense your world.

  • We classically consider humans to have five senses, but in fact, you have many more. Strictly speaking, you have one sense of touch dedicated to pressure, another for heat and cold, another for vibration and texture—and that's just one of your traditional senses!
  • People often think that if you close one eye, you'll lose your ability to perceive depth. But because there are other sources of information that influence how you sense depth, you are still able to see and judge distances just fine!
  • Your brain can generate flavor preferences based on what your body needs. For example, peanut butter may not smell good to you, but if you are very hungry—particularly if your body has a need for protein and magnesium—peanut butter may suddenly smell fantastic!

There appears to be a neural reality to the expression "it hurts to watch." If you feel strong emotional ties to someone, then when he or she experiences pain, so do you; not just figurative pain but, to some extent, physical pain that can be measured.

And that's only a small sampling of the many insights you'll uncover as you journey deep inside the inner workings of human perception and sensation.

Enjoy Interactive Experiments, Tests, and Demonstrations

Of course, research and experimentation plays an integral part in shaping how we know what we know about human perception. In many of this course's lectures, Professor Vishton—who has explored human perception in research projects supported by the National Science Foundation and other organizations—invites you to participate in simple experiments, tests, and demonstrations while watching or listening that will hammer home your understanding of how your senses operate.

  • Stare at footage of a downward-moving waterfall for two minutes in order to see upward drifting motion—even where there is nothing actually moving. Professor Vishton explains what these visual "aftereffects"tell you about motion perception in general.
  • Listen to the repetition of a particular syllable with your eyes closed and then again while watching someone mouth a different syllable. When watching the video, your natural lip-reading abilities cause you to perceive a different sound, even though the sound itself never changes.
  • Plug your nose and take a bite of an onion to notice its sweetness and juiciness without the sting of its odor. What you perceive as taste is largely your sense of smell.

Combine this interactive way of learning with Professor Vishton's numerous awards and accolades—including The College of William & Mary's Alumni Fellowship Award for excellence in teaching—and you've got a world-class learning experience that will undoubtedly change the way you think about your senses. After you've taken Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception, you won't eat dinner, listen to a conversation, sit in a chair, or pick up an object in the same way again.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Your Amazing, Intelligent Senses
    Embark on a fascinating journey into the secret life of your senses. In this introductory lecture, Professor Vishton uses a series of demonstrations to prove that perception is, in fact, amazing; shows you how your sensory systems inherently rely on making "educated guesses"; and lays the roadmap for the lectures ahead. x
  • 2
    The Physiological Hardware of Your Senses
    Get a working knowledge of sensory physiology that will prove important for the lectures ahead. Learn how neurons function, how your senses translate energy into electrical signals, how your brain organizes this energy, and how you can mentally represent the infinite range of things out in the world. x
  • 3
    Neuroimaging—The Sensory Brain at Work
    Learn how brain researchers figured out how the functions of sensation and perception map onto particular brain regions. Focusing on what happens when you recognize a face, see how brain-injured patients, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and scientific studies have brought us closer than ever to understanding this complex subject. x
  • 4
    Brain Modules—Subcomponents of the Senses
    There is evidence out there to support the idea that your senses arise from many separate, independent "modules." Here, Professor Vishton discusses the evidence for this organization and demonstrates how your mind puts these modules together to create the rich, combined sensory experience you live with every day. x
  • 5
    Perceiving a World in Motion
    Explore three key aspects of how you sense motion. First, learn why motion information is important for perceiving the location, shape, and identity of objects around you. Then, examine how your brain perceives and infers motion. Finally, discover how you interpret the complex patterns of motion delivered to your retinas. x
  • 6
    Seeing Distance and Depth
    Probe a classic mystery of sensory processing: depth perception. When is depth perception not accurate? How do cues such as convergence and motion parallax support your perception of size and depth? And how do you put these sources of information together to produce a single, accurate picture of what's around you? x
  • 7
    Seeing Color and Light
    Turn now to the ways that you perceive color. After a quick discussion of the physics of light and color, Professor Vishton explains the trichromatic theory of color perception (how color is processed in your retinas) and the opponent process theory of color perception (how color is interpreted in your visual cortex). x
  • 8
    Your World of Taste and Olfaction
    In the first of six lectures on your nonvisual senses, focus on taste and smell. You'll learn where your unique flavor preferences come from, how smells are processed in your brain, why aromas can recall particular memories and emotions, how taste interacts with smell and vision, and much more. x
  • 9
    Hearing the World around You
    What are the physics of sound? How does your auditory system transform sound into patterns of neural activity? How does sound localization—the process through which you can infer the location of different sound sources—work? Uncover the answers to these and many other questions about your sense of hearing. x
  • 10
    Speech and Language Perception
    In this fascinating lecture, discover how you produce and perceive language. Explore how you communicate ideas using basic sounds; how you determine where one word ends and another begins; how things you think are being perceived by your ears are actually sensed by your eyes, and more. x
  • 11
    Touch—Temperature, Vibration, and Pressure
    Broaden your understanding of just how detailed and intricate is your sense of touch. You'll spend time considering the different reception systems embedded in your skin; the ways you use touch to control your actions and to explore your surroundings; and how this particular sense grounds your other senses. x
  • 12
    Pain—How It Works for You
    Pain is more than just a nuisance—it's extremely important to your well-being. Get an overview of the systems of pain perception; the ways your brain processes pain formation; how seeing pain in others can quite literally cause you to feel pain yourself; and what happens when the pain system breaks down. x
  • 13
    Perception in Action
    Recent scientific studies have shown that your actions can actually control your perceptions. Here, Professor Vishton guides you through our latest understanding of the interplay between action and perception. By looking at how perception and action go together, you'll have a much more accurate grasp of the entire human sensory process. x
  • 14
    Attention and Perception
    Examine how attention works in the human visual system. You'll learn how attention functions, how it enables you to locate mental resources effectively, how it works as a "spotlight" highlighting aspects of visual input, and how it serves as "perceptual glue" pulling together aspects of a stimulus into perceptual objects. x
  • 15
    Kinesthetic Perception
    One human sense often left off the standard list of five: kinesthetic perception, or how you perceive and move your body. Consider aspects of kinesthetic perception, including your vestibular sense (how you perceive the position of your whole body) and proprioception (how you perceive the position of individual body parts). x
  • 16
    Seeing, Remembering, Inferring Infants
    Get a better understanding of adult perception by exploring the intriguing process of perceptual development from birth to the first few years of life. How do infants see? Control their eye moments? Use their sensory input to make inferences about things they can't directly see? Learn all this and more here. x
  • 17
    How Infants Sense and Act On Their World
    Continue building on ideas about how infant perception works and develops. In this lecture, you'll focus on how an infant's nonvisual senses develop; how an infant connects sensory abilities to actions such as crawling, reaching, and grasping; and how these action abilities influence an infant's sensory and perceptual abilities. x
  • 18
    Illusions and Magic
    Enter the world of illusions and see how, in addition to being entertaining, they can reinforce and further develop your grasp of human sensation and perception. Professor Vishton guides you through some of his favorite visual illusions, including the Kanizsa triangle, the "Café wall," and the "paper dragon" illusions. x
  • 19
    Perceiving Emotion in Others and Ourselves
    Consider perception and emotion from a variety of perspectives. How does emotion ramp up your sensory sensitivity to fear, or reduce it for disgust? How can various emotional states change your perception of time and space? How can you use vision and hearing to pick up information about someone's future health and well-being? x
  • 20
    Sensing the Thoughts of Others—ESP
    Reading minds. Detecting lies. Predicting the future. Debunk these and other "paranormal phenomena" by exploring how we infer others' thoughts and actions through standard perception. Then, consider the possibility that ESP, telepathy, and clairvoyance can exist by learning about an ambitious—and controversial—research project from the 1980s. x
  • 21
    Opponent Process for Perception and Life
    Make sense of opponent process, one of the most fundamental organizational principles by which your brain is organized. Consider how opponent process is implemented at the level of individual neurons, how it maintains your internal state of well-being, how it explains why people engage in extreme behavior, and more. x
  • 22
    Synesthesia—Tasting Color and Seeing Sound
    Focus on the strange and interesting phenomenon of synesthesia, which draws seemingly bizarre connections between different sensory inputs (such as associating a letter with a specific color or an image with an unrelated taste). Studying this subject, you'll find, reveals some interesting facts about normal perception as well. x
  • 23
    How Your Sensory Systems Learn
    How do wine experts correctly identify wine after a single sip? How do chessmasters re-create pieces of a game on a chessboard? The answer is the subject of this lecture: perceptual learning, or the ways your sensory systems change after repeated exposure to stimulus. x
  • 24
    Fixing, Replacing, and Enhancing the Senses
    Cochlear implants, artificial retina projects, tactile television—just three of the fascinating topics you'll learn about in this final lecture on fixing and replacing damaged sensory systems. The successes and failures of these and other technologies have taught us even more about how the senses work. x

Lecture Titles

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Peter M. Vishton
Ph.D. Peter M. Vishton
The College of William & Mary
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at The College of William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation. A consulting editor for the journal Child Development, Professor Vishton has published articles in many of the top journals in the field of psychology. Among these are Psychological Science, Science, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology. He is also the creator of the DVD What Babies Can Do: An Activity-Based Guide to Infant Development. In addition to teaching, Professor Vishton devotes much of his career to researching the perception and action control of both infants and adults. His studies-funded by prestigious institutions, including the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the National Science Foundation-focus on cognitive, perceptual, and motor development; visually guided action; visual perception; computational vision and motor control; and human-computer interface. Professor Vishton has presented his findings at numerous conferences and invited talks throughout the United States and Europe.
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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 22 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by LateLearner I have watched and enjoyed well over 100 of the Great Courses, but seldom take the time to write a review. Occasionally, I find a course that has that wonderful combination of fascinating material that is all new to me, beautiful organization, and excellent delivery, and I am forced to say "Bravo!" Other examples of this sort of combination (for me) were Filippenko's Astronomy and Nowicki's Biology. March 23, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Insightful Well presented and thought provoking for a novice viewer. January 12, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception The audio is confusing and complicated. I listened to the first several lectures and found it very stressful to be imagining the visual cues with out being able to see them. I have re-ordered and am now spending extra to get eh video. December 18, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Survey Course I purchased this course in audio and it was obvious that missing the visuals took a bit away from the overall value however I felt the clarity with which the lecturer presents overcame this. As I found to be the case in his other Great Courses course "Powerful Memory", Dr. Vishton is an extremely clear, concise and descriptive lecturer. He presents the material in such a clear manner that although I have a medical background it wasn't at all needed for understanding. The breadth of material presented is quite large and yet it all seems to come together - he integrates various systems (audio, visual, tactile, taste and smell) in such a way that the course builds upon itself quite nicely. I was initially very discouraged thinking that this course was almost a duplication of the other Great Courses "Sensation, Perception and the Aging Process" but I found that not to be the case. Although there was some overlap, there were enough significant differences that I'm very glad I purchased both of them. For anyone interested in how we perceive things - how we come to conclusions based upon our perceptions - this course is a winner. October 11, 2013
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