Perception is a fascinating topic. These pages are intended to convey my own sense of fascination with the topic, while providing materials to support people teaching the perception course (or the perception component of the introductory psychology course). The pages are organized in the same fashion as the textbook that I've co-authored with Margaret Matlin.

This page complements the first chapter of the textbook. As such, it provides an introduction to perception, including theoretical approaches that people have taken to the topic.

Overview of Theoretical Approaches to Sensation and Perception

The Behaviorist Approach

• From your introductory psychology course, you likely learned about a number of different behavioral psychologists. Prominent among them would be James B. Watson (cf. Watson's 1913 article, Psychology as the behaviorist views it) and B. F. Skinner. Although you might not find yourself drawn to this approach (and the approach plays a minor role in perceptual research), its value is apparent in contrast to the approaches it sought to supplant. The legacy of this approach is likely its emphasis on the objective description of an organism's behavior. Though most current psychologists are comfortable talking about unobservable phenomena (e.g., mental rotation of objects), they do so based on observable phenomena (e.g., time to reach a decision).

The Empiricist Approach

• Empiricism is certainly an antecedent to behaviorism, but its impact is broader. Empiricism stresses the importance of sensory experience for the development of knowledge--as opposed to innate ideas. Consistent with the Gestalt approach, empiricism stresses the fact that perceptual phenomena are not due solely to the sensory information--one's stored experience (i.e., memory) is essential to perception. Bishop George Berkeley was a British philosopher who contributed to the development of empiricism. (Other British Empiricists include John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill.) The multifaceted American psychologist William James can be considered, along with other labels, a pragmatist and an empiricist.

The Gestalt Approach

• The original Gestalt theorists (Wertheimer, Koffka, & Köhler) emphasized the role of innate abilities (nativism), though modern psychologists who might espouse Gestalt principles are likely to emphasize the role of experience. Nonetheless, by stressing that sensory experience wasn't sufficient to explain perceptual experience ("the whole is different from the sum of its parts"), Gestaltists placed themselves in stark contrast to structuralists, such as Wundt and Titchener. (The structuralists thought that the best approach was to analyze perception into its elements, which could be combined in various ways to arrive at complex perceptions.) The essential Gestalt principles continue to play important roles in perceptual theory-building (e.g., shape perception).

The Gibsonian Approach

• In contrast to the empirical and Gestalt approaches, in which sensory experience isn't thought to fully define one's perceptual experience, James J. Gibson argued for direct perception. That is, he believed that organisms had evolved in a world that was rich in information, so no additional processing was needed to successfully perceive that world.

The Information-Processing Approach

• In contrast to the behaviorist approach, the cognitive approach to perception (and psychology in general) seeks to understand the underlying processes that produce the observed behaviors. Early cognitive approaches attempted to identify processes by which information from the surrounding world was input and transformed—often conceptualized as stages of processing (box models).

The Computational Approach

• One way to think of a computational approach is that it attempts to generate mathematical models and computer programs that emulate human perceptual processing. To the extent that we truly understand perceptual processes, we should be able to program a computer to mimic the processing. However, it's also possible that we could develop a computer program that responds to stimuli as a human would, but does so based on very different underlying processes. Like the Gibsonian approach, the computational approach seeks to minimize assumptions about underlying knowledge. However, it does posit knowledge of general physical principles (e.g., gravity).

Themes of the Book

There will be a number of different ways in which you will be able to interconnect material from chapters in the book. And finding such linkages wil aid you in remembering the material. However, we have identified four major themes that we will make use of throughout the text. If you keep these themes in mind, you should be able to better integrate the material across chapters.

1.Our senses evolved over time to enable us to succeed in responding to our environment, so they share some clear similarities and interact with one another.

2. Our senses are exquisitely adapted to perceive a world containing stimuli that are rich with information and are found in a rich context.

3. The information falling on our sensory receptors is inherently ambiguous, yet we typically construct a sufficiently accurate perception of the world to enable us to interact with the world successfully.

4. Cognitive processes make use of knowledge and expectations derived from experience, and they help shape our perceptions.

How to Use These Web Pages

These web pages are intended to supplement the Foley & Matlin textbook. As such, you'll find information on the pages that will not appear in the textbook. I intend them to aid an inquisitive student who may want to learn about a topic in greater detail than is available in the textbook. I also intend them to aid my colleagues who teach the perception course, or the perception unit of an introductory course. However, I do not intend these pages to supplant the textbook. Thus, they will lack that coherence that we work so hard to achieve in writing the textbook. Nonetheless, I hope that you find the pages to be useful resources as a supplement to the textbook. To aid in that regard, the pages are organized in a fashion entirely consistent with the textbook.

At the top of each page, you'll find direct links to demonstrations that will serve to enhance your understanding of concepts described in the text. You'll also find some introductory remarks intended to orient you to the material in the text. Thus, you may want to take a look at the relevant web pages before beginning to read a chapter. And, as you read through a chapter and see a reference to a demonstration, go to the web pages to try out the demonstration while the material you've read in the chapter is still fresh in your mind.

Teaching Materials

• You'll find a variety of relevant general videos at Insight Media (drill down: Social Sciences, Psychology, Biological Foundations of Psychology) and at Films for the Humanities and Sciences (e.g., 6-part BBC series on the Human Senses).

• Because many of the approaches described in the chapter have roots in the early development of psychology, you may be interested in reading some primary sources, which you can find at Christopher Green's (York University) excellent Classics in the History of Psychology site.

Recommended Readings

Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (2008). A history of psychology: Original sources and contemporary research (3rd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Boring, E. G. (1942). Sensation and perception in the history of experimental psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Fancher, R. E. (1997). Pioneers of psychology (3rd Ed.). Norton.

Goldstein, E. B. (Ed.) (2001). Blackwell handbook of perception. Blackwell.

Gordon, I. E. (2004). Theories of visual perception (3rd ed.). New York: Psychology Press.

Gregory, R. L. (1997). Eye and brain: The psychology of seeing (5th Ed.). Princeton.

Hearst, E. (Ed.) (1979). The first century of experimental psychology. Erlbaum.

Mandler, G. (2007). A history of modern experimental psychology: From James and Wundt to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.