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Perceptual Processes

As Eleanor Gibson wrote in her classic text Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development, perceptual learning results in changes in the pickup of information as a result of practice or experience. Perception and action are a cycle: People act in order to learn about their surroundings, and they use what they learn to guide their actions. From this perspective, the critical defining features of perception include the exploratory actions of the perceiver and the knowledge of the events, animate and inanimate objects, and surrounding environment gained while engaged in looking, listening, touching, walking, and other forms of direct observation. Perception often results in learning information that is directly relevant to the goals at hand, but sometimes it results in learning that is incidental to one's immediate goals.

Perception becomes more skillful with practice and experience, and perceptual learning can be thought of as the education of attention. Perceivers come to notice the features of situations that are relevant to their goals and not to notice the irrelevant features. Three general principles of perceptual learning seem particularly relevant. First, unskillful perceiving requires much concentrated attention, whereas skillful perceiving requires less attention and is more easily combined with other tasks. Second, unskillful perceiving involves noticing both the relevant and irrelevant features of sensory stimulation without understanding their meaning or relevance to one's goals, whereas skillful perceiving involves narrowing one's focus to relevant features and understanding the situations they specify. And third, unskillful perceiving often involves attention to the proximal stimulus (that is, the patterns of light or acoustic or pressure information on the retinas, cochleae, and skin, respectively), whereas skillful perceiving involves attention to the distal event that is specified by the proximal stimulus.

Different Domains

Perceptual learning refers to relatively durable gains in perception that occur across widely different domains. For example, at one extreme are studies demonstrating that with practice adults can gain exquisite sensitivity to vernier discriminations, that is, the ability to resolve gaps in lines that approach the size of a single retinal receptor. At the opposite extreme, perceptual learning plays a central role in gaining expertise in the many different content areas of work, everyday life, and academic pursuits.

In the realm of work, classic examples include farmers learning to differentiate the sex of chickens, restaurateurs learning to differentiate different dimensions of fine wine, airplane pilots misperceiving their position relative to the ground, and machinists and architects learning to "see" the three-dimensional shape of a solid object or house from the top, side, and front views.

In the realm of everyday life, important examples include learning to perceive emotional expressions, learning to identify different people and understand their facial expressions, learning to differentiate the different elements of speech when learning a second language, and learning to differentiate efficient routes to important destinations when faced with new surroundings.

In "nonacademic" subjects within the realm of academic pursuits, important examples involve music, art, and sports. For example, music students learn to differentiate the notes, chords, and instrumental voices in a piece, and they learn to identify pieces by period and composer. Art students learn to differentiate different strokes, textures, and styles, and they learn to classify paintings by period and artist. Athletes learn to differentiate the different degrees of freedom that need to be controlled to produce a winning "play" and to anticipate what actions need to be taken when on a playing field.

Finally, perceptual learning plays an equally broad role in classically academic subjects. For example, mathematics students gain expertise at perceiving graphs, classifying the shapes of curves, and knowing what equations might fit a given curve. Science students gain expertise at perceiving laboratory setups. These range widely across grade levels and domains, including the critical features of hydrolyzing water in a primary school general science setting, molecular structures in organic chemistry and genetics, frog dissections in biology, the functional relation of the frequency of waves and diffraction in different media in physics, and the critical features of maps in geology.

The borders separating perceptual learning from conceiving and reasoning often become blurred. And indeed, people perceive in order to understand, and their understanding leads to more and more efficient perception. For example, Herbert A. Simon elaborated on this in 2001 in his discussion of the visual thinking involved in having an expert understanding of the dynamics of a piston in an internal combustion engine. When experts look at a piston or a diagram of a piston or a graph representing the dynamics of a piston, they "see" the higher order, relevant variables, for example, that more work is performed when the combustion explosion moves the piston away from the cylinder's base than when the piston returns toward the base. The ability to "see" such higher-order relations is not just a question of good visual acuity, but it instead depends on content knowledge (about energy, pressure, and work) and on an understanding of how energy acts in the context of an internal combustion engine. In a 2001 article, Daniel Schwartz and John Bransford emphasized that experience with contrasting cases helps students differentiate the critical features when they are working to understand statistics and other academic domains. In a 1993 article, J. Littlefield and John Rieser demonstrated the skill of middle school students at differentiating relevant from irrelevant information when attempting to solve story problems in mathematics.

Classical Issues in Perceptual Learning and Perceptual Development

Perceptual development involves normative agerelated changes in basic sensory sensitivities and in perceptual learning. Some of these changes are constrained by the biology of development in well-defined ways. For example, the growth in auditory frequency during the first year of life is mediated in part by changes in the middle ear and inner ear. Growth in visual acuity during the first two years is mediated in several ways: by changes in the migration of retinal cells into a fovea, through increasing control of convergence eye movements so that the two eyes fixate the same object, and through increasing control of the accommodate state of the lens so that fixated objects are in focus. The role of physical changes in the development of other perceptual skills, for example, perceiving different cues for depth, is less clear.

Nativism and empiricism are central to the study of perception and perceptual development. Stemming from philosophy's interest in epistemology, early nativists (such as seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes and eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant) argued that the basic capacities of the human mind were innate, whereas empiricists argued that they were learned, primarily through associations. This issue has long been hotly debated in the field of perceptual learning and development. How is it that the mind and brain come to perceive three-dimensional shapes from two-dimensional retinal projections; perceive distance; segment the speech stream; represent objects that become covered from view? The debate is very lively in the early twenty-first century, with some arguing that perception of some basic properties of the world is innate, and others arguing that it is learned, reflecting the statistical regularities in experience. Given that experience plays a role in some forms of perceptual learning, there is evidence that the timing of the experience can be critical to whether, and to what degree, it is learned effectively.

The "constancy" of perception is a remarkable feat of perceptual development. The issue is that the energy that gives rise to the perception of a particular object or situation varies widely when the perceiver or object moves, the lighting changes, and so forth. Given the flux in the sensory input, how is it that people manage to perceive that the objects and situations remain (more or less) the same? Research about perceptual constancies has reemerged as an important topic as computer scientists work to design artificial systems that can "learn to see."

Intersensory coordination is a major feature of perception and perceptual development. How is it, for example, that infants can imitate adult models who open their mouths wide or stick out their tongues? How is it that infants can identify objects by looking at them or by touching them and can recognize people by seeing them or listening to them?

The increasing control of actions with age is a major result of perceptual learning, as infants become more skillful at perceiving steps and other features of the ground and learn to control their balance when walking up and down slopes.

In 1955 James Gibson and Eleanor Gibson wrote an important paper titled "Perceptual Learning: Differentiation or Enrichment?" By differentiation they meant skill at distinguishing smaller and smaller differences among objects of a given kind. By enrichment they meant knowledge of the ways that objects and events tend to be associated with other objects and events. Their paper was in part a reaction to the predominant view of learning at the time: that learning was the "enrichment" of responses through their association with largely arbitrary stimulus conditions. The authors provided a sharp counterpoint to this view. Instead of conceiving of the world as constructed by add-on processes of association, they viewed perceivers as actively searching for the stimuli they needed to guide their actions and decisions, and in this way coming to differentiate the relevant features situated in a given set of circumstances from the irrelevant ones.


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