Perceptual Development

Before You Start

• You know about many different types of perception (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) in adult humans. You've also learned a bit about how aging might affect perceptual abilities. This chapter revisits many different types of perception to focus on both ends of the developmental continuum -- how the perceptual abilities develop and how they change over time. Thus, you should be quite comfortable with the topics being discussed.

• The perpetual question in terms of development—perceptual and otherwise—is the extent to which nature or nurture is responsible. As you read and think about perceptual development, try to assess the role played by both nature and nurture.

• Can you identify general principles that affect perceptual development? How does the developing human differ from the aging human in terms of perceptual abilities?

Studying Perceptual Development in Infancy

Studying organisms with limited communication skills requires creative research designs. Studying human infants presents a number of unique challenges, leading to a number of different approaches, such as the ones below.

Preference Method

• Infants will tend to look at stimuli that they find more interesting. That fact enables researchers to determine whether or not infants are capable of distinguishing between two stimuli. (If they look at two stimuli for equal amounts of time, they have no preference between the two they may be indistinguishable.)

Habituation Method

• Novel stimuli are typically more interesting to infants, so once they have adapted (habituated) to a stimulus, they will tend to look at a different stimulus. Thus, once infants have habituated to a stimulus, they should spend more time looking at a novel stimulus. If they don't, it may signal that they can't distinguish between the two stimuli.

Conditioning Method

• Conditioning paradigms (both classical and operant) developed in animal research have been adapted to research with human infants. One researcher who has used such methods extensively is Carolyn Rovee-Collier.

Other Methods

• Researchers use a number of different methods for studying brain activity in infants. One method is to record from a number of electrodes located around the infant's head (EEG/ERP). Pictured below is the HydroCel Geodesic Sensor Net from Electrical Geodesics Incorporated.

egi photo
Photo Courtesy of EGI

Vision in Infancy

Link - The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute has a page devoted to infant vision. Their research page contains a relevant link to infant vision research.

The Developing Visual System


Eye Movements

Shape Perception

Distance Perception

Color Perception

Motion Perception


Hearing in Infancy

Auditory Abilities

Speech Perception

Link - The Child Language Data Exchange System (Brian MacWhinney, Carnegie Mellon) is an amazing resource for those interested in language development.

Link - Judy Plantigna, working in Laurel Trainor's Auditory Development Lab at McMaster University, has a page that shows a 2-month-old participant engaging in one of her research projects.

Vision and Hearing in Late Adulthood and Old Age

Vision in Late Adulthood and Old Age

Link - Dr. Haegerstrom-Portnoy (UC Berkeley) has a page that illustrates some effects of aging on vision.

Hearing in Late Adulthood and Old Age

Presbycusis (also called presbyacusis) refers to the loss of high-frequency hearing abilities that accompanies the aging process (and exposure over time to loud noises). Because older people often cannot hear frequencies above 17 kHz, Howard Stapleton initially developed the Mosquito tone to drive away teenagers (e.g., from areas around stores) without affecting older people. Apparently, the high-frequency sound is sufficiently annoying that teenagers move on to a less sonically distasteful area. In an interesting corollary application of this phenomenon, a ring tone for cell phones was developed that is comprised of sufficiently high frequencies that teenagers can hear the sound, while most older people cannot. Thus, for insance, young students can hear that their cell phones are ringing while most of their teachers hear nothing. (Paul Vitello, 6/12/06, A ring-tone meant to fall on deaf ears. New York Times.)

Test Yourself

1. To what extent does the infant’s visual world resemble the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that William James described? In what areas do infants have more perceptual ability than you might have imagined before reading this chapter?

2. The section on infancy introduced you to three experimental methods. Name them, describe how each was used to test perceptual skills, and discuss how you might use each to discover something about infants’ capacities for smell.

3. Imagine that you have been asked to design toys that will be interesting for infants under the age of 6 months. What kinds of characteristics should these toys have?

4. As we mentioned, a frequent issue in developmental psychology is the nature-nurture question. What would you conclude about the components of speech perception? What implications does your conclusion suggest for the development of language?

5. In what ways do young infants appreciate the relationship between sights and sounds? Spend a few minutes moving around your room, moving objects and making noises with them. What other aspect of intermodal perception would be interesting to test with infants? Be specific about which of the three experimental methods you would use, and provide details about the study you would design to test your hypothesis.

6. Develop a time line of perceptual development (i.e., what ability has developed by a given month). Be sure to include both vision and hearing. Given that various processes are interrelated and that they develop at different rates, what implications can you derive from differences in development of various perceptual abilities?

7. Studying perception in the very young and the very old presents particular challenges to a researcher. Describe the problems these researchers face and the methodological solutions they have adopted.

8. How do the visual and auditory abilities of infants differ from those of elderly people? What similarities and differences do you notice? How well do infants and elderly people see objects closer than 6 inches, or objects that are very far away? How readily do infants and elderly people hear speech sounds?

9. Suppose that an elderly relative will be visiting you for the weekend. What kinds of information from this chapter would be helpful in making the visit as successful as possible? Be sure to discuss both vision and hearing.

10. Throughout the text, you have seen instances of the importance of context for perception (Theme 2). Compare examples of the role of context found in this chapter with examples from earlier chapters.


Teaching Materials

Link - If you're interested in making some displacement goggles to illustrate adaptation to novel visual input, you can order 3M Press-on lenses in various displacements (up to 40D) from Western Ophthalmics. You can then apply these lenses to safety goggles or other glasses.

Link - PsychKits also offers vision-distorting goggles.

Link - This page describes the sensory systems and alerts you to the impact of age on the sensory systems.

Link - Precision Glass & Optics manufactures a wide array of prisms.

Link - Susan Whitbourne (University of Massachusetts) has written a wonderful text about various aspects of aging. You can find helpful links at her supporting web site.

Link - Donald Kline (University of Calgary) heads the Vision and Aging Laboratory, and his web pages contain a number of useful tutorials. Also at the University of Calgary is the Perceptual and Cognitive Aging Lab.

Link - A set of links about aging at the CIHR site.

Link - Janet Werker (University of British Columbia) has a site that illustrates her work on the development of speech and language, including some QuickTime movies showing participating children.

Recommended Readings

Granrud, C. E. (Ed.). (1993). Visual perception and cognition in infancy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kellman, P. J., & Arterberry, M. E. (1998). The cradle of knowledge: Development of perception in infancy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kellman, P. J., & Arterberry, M. E. (2006). Infant Visual Perception. In D. Kuhn, R. S. Siegler, W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol 2, Cognition, perception, and language (6th ed., pp. 109-160). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Plumert, J. M. & Spencer, J. P. (Eds.). (2007). The emerging spatial mind. New York: Oxford.

Whitbourne, S. K. (2002). The aging individual: Physical and psychological perspectives (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.