Attention and Perception in a Contextual Frame

  • Re-reading an old paper on (JJ) Gibsonian and Skinnerian views of perception.  And thinking a lot lately about ‘attention’ and ‘perception’ as contextual responding (action) rather than passive reception and processing, and Gibson’s affordances as perceptual responding in Skinner’s contingencies.   Easy to summarize but difficult to actually get a gut feel for it. I will try again:

Moving and looking are shaped by the affordances or contingencies of the  external environment (not by the named ‘objects’ themselves) and that IS perception, and ALL IT IS.

Nothing needs to be taken inside of us and processed; it only appears that way because we also talk about things, but that involves social affordances or contingencies not the object affordances.  ‘Cognitive processing’ is mostly about the social contingencies of talking/ thinking and their particular and peculiar properties.

  • We only ‘see’ or ‘attend to’ what a dog affords us (or ‘has shaped’, for BA/AC)
  • We never ‘see’ a dog (this one is difficult to get!)
  • We attend to or respond to the affordances or contingencies of a ‘dog’
  • We can attend and respond without talking about it (although humans do 99% of the time because social contingencies are so hugely important!)
  • So we can also say that it is a dog
  • We can say what a dog is
  • We can say that we see ‘a dog’
  • But these two ways of responding to a ‘dog’ (‘attending to’ and ‘talking about’) are very different: miles apart!  Different affordances/ contingencies
  • Cognitive psychology confuses the two and tries to explain responding to things in terms of being able to talk about them (that is their ‘cognitive processing’); and neuroscience is currently following this and trying to explain the wrong phenomena
  • But almost all perception theories also confuse them (except JJ Gibson) so no blame or shame

What else I know is that it is difficult to change the attending and responding because it is external and words do not help much to change them (“stop looking at that!”); we should change the environment instead.   Highly ‘valued’ affordances and ‘strong’ contingencies get us looking regardless of what we might say to ourselves (like the cocktail party effect or the ‘don’t think about elephants’ effect).  And we do stop attending when the affordances ‘satiate’ (like the posters and paintings on your walls), although we can still say that they are on the wall.

And the trickier bit, I also know that we attend to and respond to a lot of ‘objects’ and events only because there are strong social affordances if we name them to someone (“Can you believe what I saw?!) not because of any other environmental affordances/ contingencies.  But…this leads to…

Most importantly for research and observation, when we do name some ‘object’ (“Can you believe it, I saw a dog”) we also seem to stop observing (attending/ responding) at that point: we have ‘satisfied’ the social affordances/ contingencies (what people afford us) and so we are done.  But bad for research, practice and… life:

“Yes I saw the beautiful sunset earlier”.  Done. We have named it. We are done.  End of experience.  No more looking, no more responding to environment…  Enter at this point, Zen…

Guerin, B. (1990). Gibson, Skinner, and perceptual responses. Behavior and Philosophy, 18, 43-54.


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