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K-1: The Senses

Author(s): Barbara Tharp, MS, Michael Vu, MS, Delinda Mock, BA, Christopher Burnett, BA, and Nancy Moreno, PhD.

The Brain: Communication

Guiding Question
How does information from different parts of the body reach the brain?


  • The brain and nervous system receive and act on information from inside and outside the body. 
  • The senses gather and process different kinds of information.

Every organism must collect and process information about the surrounding world to find food, avoid danger and locate other individuals. Even single-celled organisms are able to detect and respond to changes in their environments, such as the availability of food, that affect survival. In animals, this ability is provided by the “senses” or the sensory system—which is part of the nervous system.

Young children tend to associate the senses, such as vision or hearing, with receptor organs, such as the eyes or ears. However, the ability to receive and interpret information from inside and outside the body actually is coordinated by the brain and rest of the nervous system. 

We are able to perceive, or “sense,” many different kinds of external and internal stimuli, such as light, sound, pressure, the position of our limbs, and even pain within our own bodies. Our eyes, ears, nose, skin and other sensory organs have specialized cells, called receptors, which respond to specific kinds of stimuli. For example, receptors in the nose respond to chemicals, which we interpret as odors. Receptors in skin respond to pressure or temperature, and receptors in the eye detect light. 

These receptors translate information about the physical world and conditions inside the body into impulses that travel to the brain along nerve cells, also known as neurons. Different parts of the brain are specialized to receive information from each of our senses. For example, a region of the cerebrum in the back of the brain is dedicated to processing information from the eyes. The diagram right) shows the primary processing area for each sense (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch). It should be noted that all sensory information, except for the sense of smell, is routed through a central location deep inside the brain, known as the thalamus before being sent to the appropriate sensory area. 

After being received and processed by a primary processing area, sensory signals are forwarded to other areas of the cerebrum for more complex integration. Eventually, all information gathered by the senses is combined. Input from several senses often enables us to understand a situation better than information from only one sense. Through this process, senses enable us to interpret and react to our environment; participate in the world; and learn, achieve, discover and communicate.

Refer to the life-size body outline displayed in the classroom, and have students point to the brain. Ask students, What other parts of the body do you know about? Ask, How does information from different parts of the body reach the brain?

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