‘Seeing’ as a special type of behaving


This blog is to suggest some ways to start thinking about ‘seeing’ and ‘perception’ in a very different manner.  But one that I believe is correct (or at least on the right track!).  While the ideas can come from generic behaviour analysis principles they derive more importantly from James J. Gibson and William Powers.  The notion of ‘discriminative stimulus’ in BA needs to be totally rewritten, for example, if all this garbled stuff below is on the right track.

*************   Intro of sorts

A really old idea was that rays from our eyes were sent out and bounced off objects and this made us see things (emission theory).  A bit like the bio sonar of bats.

For a long time now in psychology, however, perception has been a more passive ‘reception’ of light rays in the eye.  We register light waves and build or construct our representations of the world from this passive reception.  That is the dominant idea still.  This view is very passive and any dynamics of seeing is from the dynamics of the light waves themselves.

An alternative view is that seeing is active, or is a type of behaving, and is not like a passive reception (Gibson, Powers, etc.).  Any dynamics of seeing is from the behaviour of the eyes and body (see 4 below), not from the light itself.

The problem is that this view is difficult to comprehend, especially when we are taught the very opposite.  Below are some ideas to help you rethink seeing and perception in this way.  But it is difficult!  These are meant to guide you into thinking this way.


*************    Some ways to rethink perception

  1. It is not that we send out light rays from our eyes (the old emission theory), or that we sit like a camera and wait for light rays to hit our eyes. Rather, our eyes (and body) behave in many ways (see 4 below) and doing this engages us in the consequential effects of our environments.

When seeing or perceiving we actively behave and change our behaviour, and doing this has different consequences.  The consequences are almost never like reinforcing or punishing consequences however, but rather, more like setting events for other events or contexts to occur.

  1. When we ‘see’, nothing is ‘taken inside’ of us, or processed, or constructed, or sent down brain channels. These ideas need to be extinguished but it is very difficult.

We think these ideas are real because one of the most common behaviours after ‘seeing’ anything is naming, and this gives us the (false) impression that we have constructed something bigger than what our behaviour has consequated.  One glance and we say, “I saw a dog”.  But what we name is not the same as what we have ‘seen’.  To repeat, seeing is behaving with consequences (but with special behaviours).

Try this: imagine a frog sitting when a fly flies past and the frog whizzes out its tongue and catches the fly.  The behaviours of the eyes and body (see 4 below) have different consequences when there is a light area and when there is a dark area (the fly flying past).  These ‘perceptual behaviours’ have different consequences and therefore can be learned and shaped.  But… it is not that the frog constructs an image or representation of a fly flying but that it has learned different consequences for its active perceptual behaviours which are occurring when the fly flies past.

  1. Try this: place you hand palm down a few centimetres above an interesting surface, and then close your eyes. There is nothing jumping up from the surface to your hand. To ‘feel’ that surface your hand must behave.  It must be lowered and then touch and rub the surface, or even use your fingers and rub the surface between them, or scratch it with your nails, perhaps.  That is, to ‘feel’ the surface your hand must behave.  If you just place it passively on the surface without moving it, you usually cannot even ‘feel’ the surface.  And you hand does not construct an image of the surface but brings about different consequences from the different behaviours.

Now, try thisthink about your ‘seeing’ in the same way.  There are light rays all around, what Gibson called the ambient optic array, but until our eyes behave there are no consequences.  Think of it as if the behaviours of our eyes actually touch, sample, or explore in an active way—active behaving of a special sort—but otherwise just like your hand feeling a surface.

So try to think about looking as you do touching with your hand; your eyes do many different behaviours and these all have different consequences.  If your eyes were perfectly still or passive you would not see anything in fact.  There would be no engagement with the environment and no effects.

  1. So what are these ‘perceptual behaviours’, then, that I have been raving about? Here are some:
  • retinal visual persistence (<100 mS)
  • eye fixations
  • learned scanning patterns
  • saccadic eye movements
  • changes in ocular musculature
  • moving the head
  • focusing the eyes
  • consequential differences between the two eyes (disparity)
  • moving the body
  • all the above movements can be 3D
  • colour differentials
  • ‘we move’ versus ‘it moves’ (important in art, cinema and photography: where ‘it’ does not move in 2D paintings, Gibson; and where things can move in ways not possible in real life, Deleuze)

As Gibson and others were keen to get across: we see with the whole body not just the eyes.  And our eyes do not ‘see things’; they behave in many different ways which can have different consequences.  Much like our hand ‘feeling’ a surface.

  1. An important conclusion now is that what we look at is mostly determined by the past consequences of previous seeing in that context. Our eyes are ‘drawn’ to ‘see’ certain things arising from the past consequences of our perceptual behaviours in context.
  1. An important question we have to ask is: what do we do with ‘seeing’ behaviours; how does it functionally operate in real life? What past consequences lead us to do a lot of perceptual behaving in some cases and little in others? What do we even do with the different consequences of behaving in the ways of (4) above?

This is just like asking: what do we do with learning tennis strokes with a racquet?  We hit balls over nets and win trophies.  Likewise, what do we even do with the ‘seeing’ behaviours?  We certainly move about and we do not bang into walls (well, sometimes), but most ‘seeing’ is probably about talking in fact.

  1. The most difficult part of all this is one that Gibson missed I think. Our main consequated behaviour from all the perceptual behaviours is to name and speak, and this comes about through social consequences of past seeing and naming, not from the objects themselves. Most of the looking we do in life leads primarily to naming and talking about what we have ‘seen’ (and that is certainly very useful for humans).  Gibson and others focused too much on the functionalities of moving around and not walking into walls.  This is important obviously, but as adults we mostly see and then talk about it.  Note that we also mostly ‘feel’ with our hands and then speak, unless perhaps we are ‘feeling’ whether some clothes are dry.

This is critically important to get a feel for, because this point is the very reason that we end up believing we have concepts and representations processed inside of us and stored as memories somewhere.  These cognitive ideas come about (falsely) because looking most frequently leads to talk and naming, but what we name is not the same as what we have ‘seen’.

  1. Another way to try and see all this is to treat the behaviours which are occurring when we ‘see’ as strategies we use to behave functionally in this world. We do not ‘see’ sensations or ‘feel’ them; we use them. We do not make representations of objects when we have different consequences from our perceptual behaviours, nor do we store images of them.  Rather, those different consequences lead to different behaviours including talking.  We also use eye-glasses because they are functional.
  1. This also suggests that many (but not all) of the brain and neuro-scientists are looking for the wrong things occurring inside the head; trying to explain how some events occur when those events do not actually occur at all. They are looking for memory storage mechanisms, and ways of storing whole representations of the objects around us. But this is not what is actually going on, according to the present view.
  2. This means that a ‘discriminative stimulus’ is not a thing we see, but is really a number of active behaviours occurring in the eye and body.  A ‘stimulus’ is an event of behaving in subtle ways, not a thing. In operant shaping we are building functional relations between some perceptual behaviours (4 above) and other behaving (such as pressing a bar for a rat), not between a thing we see and other behaviours (bar press).  This makes a big difference to how we conceive shaping and functional relations.
  3. A final point (for now) to throw out there, which I pointed out a long time ago (1990): looked at in these ways, classical conditioning is really the operant conditioning of two perceptual behaviours into a functional class.

*************    For the very brave…

  • Gibson, J. J. (1971). On the relation between hallucination and perception. Leonardo, 3, 425-427.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979). An ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Gibson, J. J., & Gibson, E J. (1955). Perceptual learning: Differentiation or enrichment? Psychological Review, 62, 32-41.
  • Guerin, B. (1990). Gibson, Skinner, and perceptual responses. Behavior and Philosophy, 18, 43-54.
  • Guerin, B. (1997). Precurrent attentional behaviors as a basis for “short-term visual remembering:” An attempt at methodology. Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, 15, 24-27.
  • Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The control of perception. Chicago: Aldine de Gruyter.

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