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Student Experimenting with Sensation and Perception

True Colors

The Cookie Monster is blue, and every student in Elisabeth Ploran’s psychology class knows it.

But one after the other, they emerged from the tented red light ‘box’ at the front of the classroom with a sheepish grin, holding up pictures of the Sesame Street character they’d colored purple or green.

And just like that an abstract concept about light wavelengths and the biology of the eye became a concrete lesson in the difference between sensation and perception.

 “We think of the senses as these perfect mechanisms that will always give us the right answer, that our eyes will always make us see the right thing and that’s not true,” said Ploran, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience and psychology. “Our brain plays tricks on us. In psychology, we’re usually focusing on perception and we think of that as the same as sensation. It’s important for students to understand the difference.”

Sensation and Perception – PSY 166

When Ploran began teaching Sensation and Perception – PSY 166 - in Fall 2012, it was a traditional lecture course. Over the years, she has introduced five days of themed labs – color perception exercises where they play with light, taste perception using unlabeled, flavored seltzer - to illustrate the concepts they were reading about.

For the color perception lab day, students rotated through several hands-on exercises – from the red light ‘box’ to an experiment that tested when they could perceive color in their peripheral vision.

“Even though this is a psychology course, there’s a lot of biology in it and there’s something about participating in the labs,” Ploran said. “It often helps them link together concepts that they wouldn’t otherwise. Working through an example in front of you is better than working through an example on paper.”

Psychology Students in Classroom

Psychology and drama major Jason Belanger ’18, immediately saw the labs’ application to theatrical settings.

“I love this class,” he said. “In the world of theater, we rely on the senses for lighting a stage, for understanding how the colors of a costume will look under stage lights. It’s great to see how it works in real life.”

Exercise science and psychology major Naiomy Ferman ’18 watched as her classmates participated in an experiment to determine when the eye recognizes color in peripheral vision.

“I thought I wasn’t going to like this class much as I do, but it’s so interactive,” she said. “We have lectures, too, but it doesn’t always click. Often, it’s not 100 percent clear to me until I get to do it with my own hands and have my ‘a ha’ moment.”

Jillian Yuni ’19 leaned over her notebook, trying to make sense of her experiment results.

“It’s really cool how sensation and perception works,” the psychology major said. “What you see isn’t what you’re seeing, it’s what you’re perceiving. I’m still learning but I’m getting there. I love this class.”

For Ploran, the journey to understanding is just as important as reaching that moment of clarity.

“I enjoy seeing the students enjoy the content and for me, that’s an even bigger win than them actually understanding the content,” she said. “Obviously I want them to understand the content, but there’s so many interesting things about our senses that we don’t think about and for them to play around with it and have those ‘a ha’ moments and kind of fall in love with just a little bit of biology makes me really happy.”