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Evidence for the constructivist theory of visual perception

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2169 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In order to answer the topic one must describe what the constructivist theory is with the use of examples that have been proposed from the theorists in this domain. The purpose is to provide an insightful evaluation to the novice reader of visual perception from the constructivist position. The first point to commence is an illustration of understanding the definition of visual perception, secondly to evaluate the theory and provide examples of contrary and parallel positions in this domain. Historical and contemporary examples will provide evidence to support the analysis. It is important to recognise and acknowledge alternative theories within this domain and therefore an element of the evaluation will provide alternative examples to illustrate the aims as set out.

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What is perception?

The phenomena of visual perception can be found to date back to Aristotle and has been focus of interest by many philosophers. One can understand it is a hot topic of debate and even today it there is still argument to understand how visual perception operates. (Shiffman, 2001) Perception can be defined as sensory processes that recognise and organise information received from environmental stimuli that allow people to understand and make sense of their world. Solso, MacLin and Maclin, 2008, Passer & Smith, 2008 & Sternberg, 2006). The process is creative and active, whereby sensory input information may be perceived at different times in different ways. (Passer & Smith, 2008) is therefore sensory information received from sight. It is the interpretation of patterns that are influenced by the environment. This appears to be as a result of the registration of the stimuli and the final response to them. (Gordon , 2004)

It is important to set the scene surrounding visual perception theories as there are many different approaches to explaining visual perception and there are different levels of explanations (Shiffman, 2001, Sternberg, 2006) Not one theory can be considered accurate however there are some have stronger evidence and provide a rational explanation. The two main theories that are at common debate are direct perception (or bottom up) theory, primarily proposed by Gibson. Direct perception starts with the stimulus itself, the information in the information received is sufficient to for perception, it is data driven it does not require higher cognitive processes (Sternberg, 2006). The contrary theory constructivism which is otherwise known as empiricism (Gordon, 2004) or top down theory will be subsequently discussed.

What is constructivist theory?

Constructivists have largely influenced in directing theories and research of perception (Schiffman, 2001). This approach illustrates that individuals builds a cognitive understanding of stimuli from the environment. The information from the senses, (i.e. sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) is used to underpin the structure together with information from other sources such as experience and knowledge. The theory states that higher order thinking or cognitive activity is imperative and is fundamental in the function of perception. It appears that perception is selective in nature and appears to show that it is controlled by factors that are not necessarily direct from the stimuli. It can be referred similar to inferential thinking in the way that a perception goes further than just sense information which frequently can be distorted to inadequate premises. People create and test many different hypotheses that are based on three things. Firstly sensory information or data (what is sensed), secondly, former knowledge that is the knowledge stored in long term memory, thirdly high-level cognitive process for what can be inferred. It is a basic belief that perception is as a result of the input from senses being interpreted by cognitive action (Shiffman, 2001, Sternberg, 2006, Gordon, 2004). Perception can be understood as a rational cognitive process (Richeimer, 2006). Constructivists argue that people make correct attribution regarding visual sensation and this is because we perform an unconscious inference. This is the process that the brain unconsciously integrates information from any number of difference sources thus creating perception. For successful perception it requires cognitive processes combing thought, intelligence and information from visual senses together with the knowledge gained from prior experience (Gordon, 2004).

Now that the main ideology surrounding this theory has been asserted it is important to consider the evidence proposed by the theorists. The philosophy of the constructivist theory was originally proposed by von Helmholtz (cited in Sternberg, 2006) at the end of the nineteenth century and empiricism it is a classic theory based around the context that people perceive things and goes further than merely directly registering sensations and other experience and stimulation have an impact on perception (Gordon, 2004; Sternberg, 2006). Helmholtz argued that when between the process of sensing and perception there must be transitional constructive processes. Perception is thought to be as a result of indirect, inferential processes. (Gordon, 2004). Rock (1983) developed Helmholtz classic ideology by stating the perceptual system uses interferences to understand visual stimuli. He continued that thinking may have evolved from perception; however this point can be regarded as speculation as there is no empirical evidence to support this. The most influential and observed evidence is from Gregory and this will be discussed at a latter point. Constructivism has been critiqued by Shiffman (2001) saying that the theory has failed to advanced influentially, however the consequent evidence outlined will suggest to the contrary

In experiments by Sanford (1936 cited in Gordon, 2004), groups of children were asked to write down what they had seen after a series of ambiguous pictures where shown. Results showed that children responded twice as much with food related answers when they were hungry than when they were not hungry. This study illustrates that hunger can be a contributing factor or higher order process to what is seen and if hunger can influence then perhaps it may apply to other physiological states. Barlett (1932, cited in Gordon, 2004) illustrated that prior experiences can influence what is seen. Visitors were asked to look at images using a tachistoscope and advise what they had viewed. A tachistoscope is a device used to allow an observer to view a picture at millisecond speed; it was widely used in experiments at the time. (Taylor and Maslin, 1970) The picture was a man wearing a naval cap and many participants reported that the man had a beard, (which was the current stereotype of a naval officer) despite no beard being present. This evidence supports that higher cognitive processes were involved in the perception process.

Gregory (cited in Gordon 2004) demonstrations and writings match the standards set by the Gestalt principles and this approach has been valuable to understand how humans perceive grouped objects or part objects that belong to a whole. People perceive collections of visual images in a way that is most simply organises the distinct components into a comprehensible and stable form. Gestalt principles are used by individuals’ everyday and they provide depictive introduction into pattern and form perception but does not provide an explanation to why and how we perceive these forms or patterns.

The Müller-Lyer experiment (Sternberg, 2006; Gordon, 2004, Solso et al, 2008) see figure 1. below can be explained by applying Gregory’s theory, the arrow ends act as an indication of depth and following linear perspective rules, the hypothesis proposes that the out-turned arrows act as a cue of depth and are therefore interpreted as longer (Gordon 2004). However this explanation has been criticised and this is explained through a statistical relationship between images received through the retina (in the eye) and external sources (Howe and Purves, 2004) However one could use this evidence to support the constructivist view as cognitive inferences i.e external information are used to in order to make this assumption.

http://members.multimania.nl/amazingart/images/muller_lyer.gifFigure 1.

This theory proposed by Gregory is the most enriched explanation in the constructivist domain, it can be criticised on the bases of the nature of the theory on the hypothesis basis, it does not represent how the sciences actually behave. People are not ultimately to be suspicious of their senses after viewing an illusion, and how do people make changes to their hypotheses do they do this in the same way that scientists would modify according depending on the failure or success If this element should be considered valid, then we should be able to change our hypotheses on the realisation of an illusion would allow one to be able to see it as being an illusion. However perhaps in reality this is not valid as there is evidence to support that although people are aware the illusion is known people will still be influenced and see the illusion (Gordon, 2004). In addition Brunswik (cited in Gordon, 2004) noted that there was evidence to suggest that there is evidence that infants have capability to perceive shortly after birth and this suggests that perhaps perception is not just based on prior knowledge.

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The Bartlett study provided relevant evidence to support that cognitive inference plays a role in repetiton and Sanford illustrated that a state of mind can influence interpretation of ambigious pictures. This theory exemplifies how the environment can be perceived. The constructivist is not without criticisms, the radical constructivist position undervalues the importance of sensory data. If this theory was solely correct then it would be vulnerable to a collection of inaccuracies of perception. Evidence illustrates that it is possible and therefore important for acknowledge the bottom up approach, both theories have acquire support and with empirical evidence from the visual pathways in retinal images.

Perhaps one should consider from the Norman (2002) stand that the two theories work like a pendulumn rather than bipolar distinctions. Both theories contribute to the truth of perception (O’Regan, 1992, Sternberg, 2006). This approach recognised that perception can be explained by the using evidence from neuropsychology together with the theories proposed in cognitive psychology. Constructivism is thought to correspond to the ventral system and ecological/direct domain operates the dorsal system. It has been found that the two systems operate diverse areas of perception. The ventral system functions visual information regarding the environment, for example recognising and identifying items formerly experienced and processing new information received. The dorsal system that operates parallel with the ecological or direct approach applies information received to direct behaviour of individuals in the environment (Norman, 2002)


The attempts by many to reconcile the differences from the bipolar distinctions in this domain provide significant evidence to support the existence of the constructivist theory. As the evidence suggests by Norman (2002) that it is possible for the two visual systems to co-exist and complement one another. This point requires further development of research could provide a valuable yet insightful base for rejecting or confirming this hypothesis. It cannot be argued that constructivism has not been immensely influential to the understanding of perception, it could be regarded that whilst ideologies existed hundreds of years prior to Helmholtz, and he pioneered valuable research that laid the foundations for future interpretations.

In sum of the evidence proposed, the constructivist model of visual perception provides an insightful but not exhaustive theory. It paved the way to allow further research to provide evidence to a foundation of visual perception theory. It cannot solely exist as the evidence by Brunswick and criticism against the radical constructivists suggests. This point directs that perhaps another concept should be considered like many have suggested and embrace to provide a comprehensive contemporary model. One must point out that the evidence proposed is not by any means the extent and depth of the literature available. Perhaps one could argue indefinitely regarding the philosophy of perception, and as previously asserted no one theory is correct. However, in the view of conclusions the aim of this essay has been achieved by providing a critique of the evidence proposed to allow the reader to have a comprehension and critical evaluation of the constructivist model.


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