Perception (psychology), process by which organisms interpret and organize sensation to produce a meaningful experience of the world. Sensation usually refers to the immediate, relatively unprocessed result of stimulation of sensory receptors in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or skin. Perception, on the other hand, better describes one’s ultimate experience of the world and typically involves further processing of sensory input. In practice, sensation and perception are virtually impossible to separate, because they are part of one continuous process.
Our sense organs translate physical energy from the environment into electrical impulses processed by the brain. For example, light, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, causes receptor cells in our eyes to activate and send signals to the brain. But we do not understand these signals as pure energy. The process of perception allows us to interpret them as objects, events, people, and situations.
Without the ability to organize and interpret sensations, life would seem like a meaningless jumble of colors, shapes, and sounds. A person without any perceptual ability would not be able to recognize faces, understand language, or avoid threats. Such a person would not survive for long. In fact, many species of animals have evolved exquisite sensory and perceptual systems that aid their survival.
This article focuses on visual perception. For information about specific sensory systems, see Vision; Hearing; Smell; Taste; Touch.
II PRINCIPLES OF PERCEPTUAL ORGANIZATION
Organizing raw sensory stimuli into meaningful experiences involves cognition, a set of mental activities that includes thinking, knowing, and remembering. Knowledge and experience are extremely important for perception, because they help us make sense of the input to our sensory systems. To understand these ideas, try to read the following passage:
You could probably read the text, but not as easily as when you read letters in their usual orientation. Knowledge and experience allowed you to understand the text. You could read the words because of your knowledge of letter shapes, and maybe you even have some prior experience in reading text upside down. Without knowledge of letter shapes, you would perceive the text as meaningless shapes, just as people who do not know Chinese or Japanese see the characters of those languages as meaningless shapes. Reading, then, is a form of visual perception.
Note that in the example above, you did not stop to read every single letter carefully. Instead, you probably perceived whole words and phrases. You may have also used context to help you figure out what some of the words must be. For example, recognizing upside may have helped you predict down, because the two words often occur together. For these reasons, you probably overlooked problems with the individual letters—some of them, such as the n in down, are mirror images of normal letters. You would have noticed these errors immediately if the letters were right side up, because you have much more experience seeing letters in that orientation.
How people perceive a well-organized pattern or whole, instead of many separate parts, is a topic of interest in Gestalt psychology. According to Gestalt psychologists, the whole is different than the sum of its parts. Gestalt is a German word meaning configuration or pattern.
A Gestalt Laws of Grouping
The three founders of Gestalt psychology were German researchers Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler. These men identified a number of principles by which people organize isolated parts of a visual stimulus into groups or whole objects. There are five main laws of grouping: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, and common fate. A sixth law, that of simplicity, encompasses all of these laws.
Although most often applied to visual perception, the Gestalt laws also apply to perception in other senses. When we listen to music, for example, we do not hear a series of disconnected or random tones. We interpret the music as a whole, relating the sounds to each other based on how similar they are in pitch, how close together they are in time, and other factors. We can perceive melodies, patterns, and form in music. When a song is transposed to another key, we still recognize it, even though all of the notes have changed.
The law of proximity states that the closer objects are to one another, the more likely we are to mentally group them together. In the illustration below, we perceive as groups the boxes that are closest to one another. Note that we do not see the second and third boxes from the left as a pair, because they are spaced farther apart.
The law of similarity leads us to link together parts of the visual field that are similar in color, lightness, texture, shape, or any other quality. That is why, in the following illustration, we perceive rows of objects instead of columns or other arrangements.
The law of continuity leads us to see a line as continuing in a particular direction, rather than making an abrupt turn. In the drawing on the left below, we see a straight line with a curved line running through it. Notice that we do not see the drawing as consisting of the two pieces in the drawing on the right.
According to the law of closure, we prefer complete forms to incomplete forms. Thus, in the drawing below, we mentally close the gaps and perceive a picture of a duck. This tendency allows us to perceive whole objects from incomplete and imperfect forms.
A5 Common Fate
The law of common fate leads us to group together objects that move in the same direction. In the following illustration, imagine that three of the balls are moving in one direction, and two of the balls are moving in the opposite direction. If you saw these in actual motion, you would mentally group the balls that moved in the same direction. Because of this principle, we often see flocks of birds or schools of fish as one unit.
Central to the approach of Gestalt psychologists is the law of prägnanz, or simplicity. This general notion, which encompasses all other Gestalt laws, states that people intuitively prefer the simplest, most stable of possible organizations. For example, look at the illustration below. You could perceive this in a variety of ways: as three overlapping disks; as one whole disk and two partial disks with slices cut out of their right sides; or even as a top view of three-dimensional, cylindrical objects. The law of simplicity states that you will see the illustration as three overlapping disks, because that is the simplest interpretation.
B Figure and Ground
Not only does perception involve organization and grouping, it also involves distinguishing an object from its surroundings. Notice that once you perceive an object, the area around that object becomes the background. For example, when you look at your computer monitor, the wall behind it becomes the background. The object, or figure, is closer to you, and the background, or ground, is farther away.
Gestalt psychologists have devised ambiguous figure-ground relationships—that is, drawings in which the figure and ground can be reversed—to illustrate their point that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Consider the accompanying illustration entitled “Figure and Ground.” You may see a white vase as the figure, in which case you will see it displayed on a dark ground. However, you may also see two dark faces that point toward one another. Notice that when you do so, the white area of the figure becomes the ground. Even though your perception may alternate between these two possible interpretations, the parts of the illustration are constant. Thus, the illustration supports the Gestalt position that the whole is not determined solely by its parts. The Dutch artist M. C. Escher was intrigued by ambiguous figure-ground relationships.
Although such illustrations may fool our visual systems, people are rarely confused about what they see. In the real world, vases do not change into faces as we look at them. Instead, our perceptions are remarkably stable. Considering that we all experience rapidly changing visual input, the stability of our perceptions is more amazing than the occasional tricks that fool our perceptual systems. How we perceive a stable world is due, in part, to a number of factors that maintain perceptual constancy.
III PERCEPTUAL CONSTANCY
As we view an object, the image it projects on the retinas of our eyes changes with our viewing distance and angle, the level of ambient light, the orientation of the object, and other factors. Perceptual constancy allows us to perceive an object as roughly the same in spite of changes in the retinal image. Psychologists have identified a number of perceptual constancies, including lightness constancy, color constancy, shape constancy, and size constancy.
A Lightness Constancy
Lightness constancy means that our perception of an object’s lightness or darkness remains constant despite changes in illumination. To understand lightness constancy, try the following demonstration. First, take a plain white sheet of paper into a brightly lit room and note that the paper appears to be white. Then, turn out a few of the lights in the room. Note that the paper continues to appear white. Next, if it will not make the room pitch black, turn out some more lights. Note that the paper appears to be white regardless of the actual amount of light energy that enters the eye.
Lightness constancy illustrates an important perceptual principle: Perception is relative. Lightness constancy may occur because the white piece of paper reflects more light than any of the other objects in the room—regardless of the different lighting conditions. That is, you may have determined the lightness or darkness of the paper relative to the other objects in the room. Another explanation, proposed by 19th-century German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, is that we unconsciously take the lighting of the room into consideration when judging the lightness of objects.
B Color Constancy
Color constancy is closely related to lightness constancy. Color constancy means that we perceive the color of an object as the same despite changes in lighting conditions. You have experienced color constancy if you have ever worn a pair of sunglasses with colored lenses. In spite of the fact that the colored lenses change the color of light reaching your retina, you still perceive white objects as white and red objects as red. The explanations for color constancy parallel those for lightness constancy. One proposed explanation is that because the lenses tint everything with the same color, we unconsciously “subtract” that color from the scene, leaving the original colors.
C Shape Constancy
Another perceptual constancy is shape constancy, which means that you perceive objects as retaining the same shape despite changes in their orientation. To understand shape constancy, hold a book in front of your face so that you are looking directly at the cover. The rectangular nature of the book should be very clear. Now, rotate the book away from you so that the bottom edge of the cover is much closer to you than the top edge. The image of the book on your retina will now be quite different. In fact, the image will now be trapezoidal, with the bottom edge of the book larger on your retina than the top edge. (Try to see the trapezoid by closing one eye and imagining the cover as a two-dimensional shape.) In spite of this trapezoidal retinal image, you will continue to see the book as rectangular. In large measure, shape constancy occurs because your visual system takes depth into consideration.
D Size Constancy
Depth perception also plays a major role in size constancy, the tendency to perceive objects as staying the same size despite changes in our distance from them. When an object is near to us, its image on the retina is large. When that same object is far away, its image on the retina is small. In spite of the changes in the size of the retinal image, we perceive the object as the same size. For example, when you see a person at a great distance from you, you do not perceive that person as very small. Instead, you think that the person is of normal size and far away. Similarly, when we view a skyscraper from far away, its image on our retina is very small—yet we perceive the building as very large.
Psychologists have proposed several explanations for the phenomenon of size constancy. First, people learn the general size of objects through experience and use this knowledge to help judge size. For example, we know that insects are smaller than people and that people are smaller than elephants. In addition, people take distance into consideration when judging the size of an object. Thus, if two objects have the same retinal image size, the object that seems farther away will be judged as larger. Even infants seem to possess size constancy.
Another explanation for size constancy involves the relative sizes of objects. According to this explanation, we see objects as the same size at different distances because they stay the same size relative to surrounding objects. For example, as we drive toward a stop sign, the retinal image sizes of the stop sign relative to a nearby tree remain constant—both images grow larger at the same rate.
IV DEPTH PERCEPTION
Depth perception is the ability to see the world in three dimensions and to perceive distance. Although this ability may seem simple, depth perception is remarkable when you consider that the images projected on each retina are two-dimensional. From these flat images, we construct a vivid three-dimensional world. To perceive depth, we depend on two main sources of information: binocular disparity, a depth cue that requires both eyes; and monocular cues, which allow us to perceive depth with just one eye.
A Binocular Disparity
Because our eyes are spaced about 7 cm (about 3 in) apart, the left and right retinas receive slightly different images. This difference in the left and right images is called binocular disparity. The brain integrates these two images into a single three-dimensional image, allowing us to perceive depth and distance.
For a demonstration of binocular disparity, fully extend your right arm in front of you and hold up your index finger. Now, alternate closing your right eye and then your left eye while focusing on your index finger. Notice that your finger appears to jump or shift slightly—a consequence of the two slightly different images received by each of your retinas. Next, keeping your focus on your right index finger, hold your left index finger up much closer to your eyes. You should notice that the nearer finger creates a double image, which is an indication to your perceptual system that it is at a different depth than the farther finger. When you alternately close your left and right eyes, notice that the nearer finger appears to jump much more than the more distant finger, reflecting a greater amount of binocular disparity.
You have probably experienced a number of demonstrations that use binocular disparity to provide a sense of depth. A stereoscope is a viewing device that presents each eye with a slightly different photograph of the same scene, which generates the illusion of depth. The photographs are taken from slightly different perspectives, one approximating the view from the left eye and the other representing the view from the right eye. The View-Master, a children’s toy, is a modern type of stereoscope.
Filmmakers have made use of binocular disparity to create 3-D (three-dimensional) movies. In 3-D movies, two slightly different images are projected onto the same screen. Viewers wear special glasses that use colored filters (as for most 3-D movies) or polarizing filters (as for 3-D IMAX movies). The filters separate the image so that each eye receives the image intended for it. The brain combines the two images into a single three-dimensional image. Viewers who watch the film without the glasses see a double image.
Another phenomenon that makes use of binocular disparity is the autostereogram. The autostereogram is a two-dimensional image that can appear three-dimensional without the use of special glasses or a stereoscope. Several different types of autostereograms exist. The most popular, based on the single-image random dot stereogram, seemingly becomes three-dimensional when the viewer relaxes or defocuses the eyes, as if focusing on a point in space behind the image. The two-dimensional image usually consists of random dots or lines, which, when viewed properly, coalesce into a previously unseen three-dimensional image. This type of autostereogram was first popularized in the Magic Eye series of books in the early 1990s, although its invention traces back to 1979. Most autostereograms are produced using computer software. The mechanism by which autostereograms work is complex, but they employ the same principle as the stereoscope and 3-D movies. That is, each eye receives a slightly different image, which the brain fuses into a single three-dimensional image.
Although binocular disparity is a very useful depth cue, it is only effective over a fairly short range—less than 3 m (10 ft). As our distance from objects increases, the binocular disparity decreases—that is, the images received by each retina become more and more similar. Therefore, for distant objects, your perceptual system cannot rely on binocular disparity as a depth cue. However, you can still determine that some objects are nearer and some farther away because of monocular cues about depth.
B Monocular Cues
Close one eye and look around you. Notice the richness of depth that you experience. How does this sharp sense of three-dimensionality emerge from input to a single two-dimensional retina? The answer lies in monocular cues, or cues to depth that are effective when viewed with only one eye.
The problem of encoding depth on the two-dimensional retina is quite similar to the problem faced by an artist who wishes to realistically portray depth on a two-dimensional canvas. Some artists are amazingly adept at doing so, using a variety of monocular cues to give their works a sense of depth.
Although there are many kinds of monocular cues, the most important are interposition, atmospheric perspective, texture gradient, linear perspective, size cues, height cues, and motion parallax.
Probably the most important monocular cue is interposition, or overlap. When one object overlaps or partly blocks our view of another object, we judge the covered object as being farther away from us. This depth cue is all around us—look around you and notice how many objects are partly obscured by other objects. To understand how much we rely on interposition, try this demonstration. Hold two pens, one in each hand, a short distance in front of your eyes. Hold the pens several centimeters apart so they do not overlap, but move one pen just slightly farther away from you than the other. Now close one eye. Without binocular vision, notice how difficult it is to judge which pen is more distant. Now, keeping one eye closed, move your hands closer and closer together until one pen moves in front of the other. Notice how interposition makes depth perception much easier.
B2 Atmospheric Perspective
The air contains microscopic particles of dust and moisture that make distant objects look hazy or blurry. This effect is called atmospheric perspective or aerial perspective, and we use it to judge distance. In the song “America the Beautiful,” the line that speaks of “purple mountains’ majesty” is referring to the effect of atmospheric perspective, which makes distant mountains appear bluish or purple. When you are standing on a mountain, you see brown earth, gray rocks, and green trees and grass—but little that is purple. When you are looking at a mountain from a distance, however, atmospheric particles bend the light so that the rays that reach your eyes lie in the blue or purple part of the color spectrum. This same effect makes the sky appear blue.
B3 Texture Gradient
An influential American psychologist, James J. Gibson, was among the first people to recognize the importance of texture gradient in perceiving depth. A texture gradient arises whenever we view a surface from a slant, rather than directly from above. Most surfaces—such as the ground, a road, or a field of flowers—have a texture. The texture becomes denser and less detailed as the surface recedes into the background, and this information helps us to judge depth. For example, look at the floor or ground around you. Notice that the apparent texture of the floor changes over distance. The texture of the floor near you appears more detailed than the texture of the floor farther away. When objects are placed at different locations along a texture gradient, judging their distance from you becomes fairly easy.
B4 Linear Perspective
Artists have learned to make great use of linear perspective in representing a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Linear perspective refers to the fact that parallel lines, such as railroad tracks, appear to converge with distance, eventually reaching a vanishing point at the horizon. The more the lines converge, the farther away they appear. See also Perspective.
B5 Size Cues
Another visual cue to apparent depth is closely related to size constancy. According to size constancy, even though the size of the retinal image may change as an object moves closer to us or farther from us, we perceive that object as staying about the same size. We are able to do so because we take distance into consideration. Thus, if we assume that two objects are the same size, we perceive the object that casts a smaller retinal image as farther away than the object that casts a larger retinal image. This depth cue is known as relative size, because we consider the size of an object’s retinal image relative to other objects when estimating its distance.
Another depth cue involves the familiar size of objects. Through experience, we become familiar with the standard size of certain objects, such as houses, cars, airplanes, people, animals, books, and chairs. Knowing the size of these objects helps us judge our distance from them and from objects around them.
B6 Height Cues
We perceive points nearer to the horizon as more distant than points that are farther away from the horizon. This means that below the horizon, objects higher in the visual field appear farther away than those that are lower. Above the horizon, objects lower in the visual field appear farther away than those that are higher. For example, in the accompanying picture entitled “Relative Height,” the animals higher in the photo appear farther away than the animals lower in the photo. But above the horizon, the clouds lower in the photo appear farther away than the clouds higher in the photo. This depth cue is called relative elevation or relative height, because when judging an object’s distance, we consider its height in our visual field relative to other objects.
B7 Motion Parallax
The monocular cues discussed so far—interposition, atmospheric perspective, texture gradient, linear perspective, size cues, and height cues—are sometimes called pictorial cues, because artists can use them to convey three-dimensional information. Another monocular cue cannot be represented on a canvas. Motion parallax occurs when objects at different distances from you appear to move at different rates when you are in motion. The next time you are driving along in a car, pay attention to the rate of movement of nearby and distant objects. The fence near the road appears to whiz past you, while the more distant hills or mountains appear to stay in virtually the same position as you move. The rate of an object’s movement provides a cue to its distance.
V MOTION PERCEPTION
Although motion plays an important role in depth perception, the perception of motion is an important phenomenon in its own right. It allows a baseball outfielder to calculate the speed and trajectory of a ball with extraordinary accuracy. Automobile drivers rely on motion perception to judge the speeds of other cars and avoid collisions. A cheetah must be able to detect and respond to the motion of antelopes, its chief prey, in order to survive.
Initially, you might think that you perceive motion when an object’s image moves from one part of your retina to another part of your retina. In fact, that is what occurs if you are staring straight ahead and a person walks in front of you. Motion perception, however, is not that simple—if it were, the world would appear to move every time we moved our eyes. Keep in mind that you are almost always in motion. As you walk along a path, or simply move your head or your eyes, images from many stationary objects move around on your retina. How does your brain know which movement on the retina is due to your own motion and which is due to motion in the world? Understanding that distinction is the problem that faces psychologists who want to explain motion perception.
One explanation of motion perception involves a form of unconscious inference. That is, when we walk around or move our head in a particular way, we unconsciously expect that images of stationary objects will move on our retina. We discount such movement on the retina as due to our own bodily motion and perceive the objects as stationary.
In contrast, when we are moving and the image of an object does not move on our retina, we perceive that object as moving. Consider what happens as a person moves in front of you and you track that person’s motion with your eyes. You move your head and your eyes to follow the person’s movement, with the result that the image of the person does not move on your retina. The fact that the person’s image stays in roughly the same part of the retina leads you to perceive the person as moving.
Psychologist James J. Gibson thought that this explanation of motion perception was too complicated. He reasoned that perception does not depend on internal thought processes. He thought, instead, that the objects in our environment contain all the information necessary for perception. Think of the aerial acrobatics of a fly. Clearly, the fly is a master of motion and depth perception, yet few people would say the fly makes unconscious inferences. Gibson identified a number of cues for motion detection, including the covering and uncovering of background. Research has shown that motion detection is, in fact, much easier against a background. Thus, as a person moves in front of you, that person first covers and then uncovers portions of the background.
People may perceive motion when none actually exists. For example, motion pictures are really a series of slightly different still pictures flashed on a screen at a rate of 24 pictures, or frames, per second. From this rapid succession of still images, our brain perceives fluid motion—a phenomenon known as stroboscopic movement. For more information about illusions of motion, see Illusion: Illusory Motion .
VI THE ROLE OF EXPERIENCE
Experience in interacting with the world is vital to perception. For instance, kittens raised without visual experience or deprived of normal visual experience do not perceive the world accurately. In one experiment, researchers reared kittens in total darkness, except that for five hours a day the kittens were placed in an environment with only vertical lines. When the animals were later exposed to horizontal lines and forms, they had trouble perceiving these forms.
Philosophers have long debated the role of experience in human perception. In the late 17th century, Irish philosopher William Molyneux wrote to his friend, English philosopher John Locke, and asked him to consider the following scenario: Suppose that you could restore sight to a person who was blind. Using only vision, would that person be able to tell the difference between a cube and a sphere, which she or he had previously experienced only through touch? Locke, who emphasized the role of experience in perception, thought the answer was no. Modern science actually allows us to address this philosophical question, because a very small number of people who were blind have had their vision restored with the aid of medical technology.
Two researchers, British psychologist Richard Gregory and British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks, have written about their experiences with men who were blind for a long time due to cataracts and then had their vision restored late in life. When their vision was restored, they were often confused by visual input and were unable to see the world accurately. For instance, they could detect motion and perceive colors, but they had great difficulty with complex stimuli, such as faces. Much of their poor perceptual ability was probably due to the fact that the synapses in the visual areas of their brains had received little or no stimulation throughout their lives. Thus, without visual experience, the visual system does not develop properly.
VII THE ROLE OF CONTEXT
Visual experience is useful because it creates memories of past stimuli that can later serve as a context for perceiving new stimuli. Thus, you can think of experience as a form of context that you carry around with you.
Ordinarily, when you read, you use the context of your prior experience with words to process the words you are reading. Context may also occur outside of you, as in the surrounding elements in a visual scene. When you are reading and you encounter an unusual word, you may be able to determine the meaning of the word by its context. Similarly, when looking at the world, you routinely make use of context to interpret stimuli. For instance, look at Example A in the illustration called “Context Effects.” Note that you can perceive an identical stimulus as either a B or an 8, depending on whether you read the row of letters or the column of numbers. Your perception depends on the context.
Although context is useful most of the time, on some rare occasions context can lead you to misperceive a stimulus. Look at Example B in the “Context Effects” illustration. Which of the green circles is larger? You may have guessed that the green circle on the right is larger. In fact, the two circles are the same size. Your perceptual system was fooled by the context of the surrounding red circles.
VIII VISUAL ILLUSIONS
A visual illusion occurs when your perceptual experience of a stimulus is substantially different from the actual stimulus you are viewing. In the previous example, you saw the green circles as different sizes, even though they were actually the same size. To experience another illusion, look at the illustration entitled “Zöllner Illusion.” What shape do you see? You may see a trapezoid that is wider at the top, but the actual shape is a square. Such illusions are natural artifacts of the way our visual systems work. As a result, illusions provide important insights into the functioning of the visual system. In addition, visual illusions are fun to experience.
Consider the pair of illusions in the accompanying illustration, “Illusions of Length.” These illusions are called geometrical illusions, because they use simple geometrical relationships to produce the illusory effects. The first illusion, the Müller-Lyer illusion, is one of the most famous illusions in psychology. Which of the two horizontal lines is longer? Although your visual system tells you that the lines are not equal, a ruler would tell you that they are equal. The second illusion is called the Ponzo illusion. Once again, the two lines do not appear to be equal in length, but they are. For further information about illusions, see Illusion.
Hugh J. Foley