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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.



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01 Oct 2016 Jun 2017 -

Registration closes 08/09/16 (places subject to availability)

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This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2022.

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.

You are expected to have a basic science background. The OU level 1 module Exploring science (S104) and one of the OU level 2 modules Cell biology (S294), Human biology (SK277), or either of the two discontinued modules, The molecular world (S205), or The physical world (S207), would be ideal preparation.

If you are working towards our BSc (Hons) 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 The science of the mind: investigating mental health (SDK228) 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.


SD329 is an optional module in our:

It can also count towards most of our other degrees at bachelors level, where it is equally appropriate to a BA or BSc. We advise you to refer to the relevant qualification descriptions for information on the circumstances in which this module can count towards these qualifications because from time to time the structure and requirements may change.

If you have a disability

Many parts of the module rely heavily on complex diagrams and learning is often supported by drawing on your own experiences of sensory perception. You will need to spend considerable amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. You can obtain more information and advice from the SD329 module manager.

The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The written study material in comb-bound format can also be provided on request.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students..

Study materials

What's included

Study books are provided in both printed and online format. All other materials, including assignments, are delivered online via the module website.

You will need

Some of the web activities in this module use the HTML 5 system. In order to display this you will need Internet Explorer 9, the latest version of Firefox or Chrome or other modern HTML 5 compliant browser. If you have a computer with a Windows XP operating system, you will need to install Firefox or Chrome or other modern HTML 5 compliant browser for these activities, as you cannot use Internet Explorer 8.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer with a Windows or OS X operating system, in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities because some software will not run on Linux, iOS or Android devices.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers for carrying out web-based activities:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

To be able to talk and listen in our online discussions you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. The tuition for this module will be online using video conferencing software. There will also be forums that will act as a virtual self-help group and enable students to support one another.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2016. We expect it to be available once a year.

How to register

To register a place on this module return to the top of the page and use the Click to register button.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Essential Documents website.
    Course facts
    About this course:
    Course code SD329
    Credits 30
    OU Level 3
    SCQF level 10
    FHEQ level 6
    Course work includes:
    3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
    No residential school

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