Signals and perception: the science of the senses
This sensory neuroscience module uses fundamental concepts from biology, chemistry, physics and psychology to explain how we interact with our environment through the senses and is therefore an opportunity for you to study an interdisciplinary topic. For each of the senses, you’ll investigate how sensation begins with a stimulus that is converted into an electrical impulse; how that is transmitted to the brain; and how the brain combines these messages – to arrive at a ‘perception of the stimulus’. The module is designed to be accessible to students pursuing a wide variety of degree studies.
What you will study
The module explores the ways in which exciting ideas and findings at the forefront of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology have transformed our understanding of how we experience the world through our senses. It provides an understanding of:
- the nature of the communication signals (e.g. light for vision, sound for hearing, molecules for taste and smell)
- primary transduction mechanisms that convert signals into electrical impulses
- the common nature of the transmission and processing of the resulting electrical signal within the nervous system
- sensory disorders and treatments.
The material is divided into six blocks, presented in three printed books, beginning with two blocks introducing the senses and the nervous system. These blocks are designed to give you sufficient neuroscience background to work through the remainder of the module and include online activities to maximise your understanding of this essential information. Blocks 3-6 also include online activities, as well as additional resources which can be accessed online.
Throughout the module the emphasis is on the commonalities and integration between the sensory systems, as you examine the processes from sensation to perception for each sense as well as the impact and treatment of impairment or loss of sensory systems.
Block 1 Introduction to the senses. This block introduces you to the human senses, concentrating on observations and experiences that raise questions about how the senses work.
Block 2 Introduction to the nervous system. In this introduction to neuroscience, and in particular to the neuron, you’ll look at the way electrical impulses created by external signals of whatever kind are transmitted throughout the nervous system; and where they are processed and give rise to our personal picture of the world. You’ll also explore the techniques that are commonly used in investigating the senses.
Block 3 Somatosensation describes the somatic sensory system including how we sense and perceive touch, pain and our own body position and movement. The latter is often considered a hidden sense and in this block you will explore the impact of its loss. You will also cover the multidisciplinary treatment of pain.
Block 4 Hearing and balance. In this block you’ll explore the nature and properties of sound waves; the specialised anatomy and functioning of the ear; and how auditory perception arises, including for speech and music. This block also focuses on the vestibular system, which is housed within the ear, and how this system gives rise to our sense of balance.
Block 5 Vision. This block is exclusively dedicated to how we sense and perceive visual information. It is the longest block, in part because the most is known about vision but also because vision is in many ways the most complex of the senses. In this block you’ll cover the nature and properties of light; the optical system of the eye; processing of visual information within the brain; and how we perceive different elements of the visual scene such as colour.
Block 6 The Chemical Senses. The related senses of smell and taste as well as the sense of flavour are the focus of this block. The topics covered include the molecular characteristics of substances that we smell or taste; the nature of the receptors involved; the coding of smell and taste and how smell may be used in diagnostics.
The module should appeal to students from many backgrounds, and will be of particular interest if you enjoy interdisciplinary study. It is suitable if you are specialising in biology, chemistry, physics or psychology, or following a degree in health sciences.
This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably with The Open University.
If you are working towards our BSc (Honours) Health Sciences, you should have completed your OU level 1 and OU level 2 study before starting this module and we recommend that you study Brain, mind and mental health (SK298) as part of your optional OU level 2 study.
It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For SD329? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.
If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.
Study books are provided in both printed and online format. In addition you’ll have access to a module website, which includes:
- a week-by-week study planner
- course-specific module materials
- audio and video content
- assignment details and submission section
- online tutorial access.
You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (11 'Big Sur' or higher).
Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.
To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).
Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.
Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.
It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.