Seeing as doing: Radical views of perceptual responding

I have been working on bringing different radical views of perception together, including Gibson, Powers, radical behaviourism, and Gestalt.  Trying to summarize my thoughts so far…

1. We only ‘know’, ‘learn’ or get anything done by engaging with the material environment. Even calling this a split between behaviour and environment misses the point, so many have not wanted to separate the two (fields, contingencies, behavioural environment, transdermality)

2. There are two especially difficult cases in all this—’perception’ (including attention, sensation) and ‘language use’ (including consciousness, intentionality, will)

3. I have dealt with language elsewhere (both out loud talking and thinking). The material engagement in all cases is engagement with people and their effects rather than anything else in the world.  But this is usually overlooked.

4. The big problem for perception has been the assumption that what hits the eye is a two-dimensional array of light (problem words in italics). If we are to ‘see’ a white duck in front of us, then it is assumed that ‘all we can possibly know about this white duck comes from the information given in a two-dimensional image on our retina. But we see a white duck in three-dimensions so we must have added something in the brain or our cognitive systems.’

5. There is an interesting irony to this. Despite the world having multiple features which multiply like a Mandelbrot pattern when we differentiate any part of our world more and more, traditionally the academic reaction to perception has been: “How on earth can perception arise from and be determined by our environments; it is just a two-dimensional image we work from”.  As if the world is almost featureless and we must rebuild it inside our heads.

6. This wrong assumption has been devastating because it leads us next (1) to assume that all sorts of events in the brain must be adding stuff to the two-dimensional retinal display before we can see, and (2) to assume that we must have a ‘representation’ of the white duck in some form in order to see it.

7. We therefore need to reconsider perception as action, as doing things, as perceptual responding. Gibson went a long way with this, and any ‘perception’ involves many different perceptual responses, including:

  • eye fixations
  • learned scanning patterns
  • saccadic eye movements
  • changes in ocular musculature
  • retinal visual persistence (<100 mS)
  • 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

That is, when we are ‘looking with our eyes’, our bodies are carrying out a lot of active responses we do not notice.  This makes a ginormous number of combinations of unique responses for every different, unique object and situation.  The environment affords us a huge array of differential responses.  So each person’s face, and each part of our world, can afford unique responding by our body eyes, musculature, etc., which can lead to unique behavioural outcomes (such as calling people by their correct names when we see them).  We can form very complex and detailed responding but they rely on the movements of our total body, not on complex representations somewhere inside our heads built from our eyes.  Our ‘remembering’ is the reenactment of unique patterns of active responding.

Putting this together, the many minute movements of our bodies and the vast arrays of invariants which change with these movements, allows for very complex ‘perception’.  So we can walk across the room and not trip over the cat without even ‘noticing’ or ‘naming’ the cat.

8. Think of plants which ‘follow’ the sun’s movement over the course of a day. They do not ‘see’ the sun, nor do they make representations of the sun inside their plant brains.  They behave differentially in the presence of absence of sun. You can try thinking about us as very complex plants…

9. This was exactly an early argument based on research by Gibson (Gibson & Gibson, 1957). “Perception” is not about ‘enriching’ the weak retinal image but about differentiating what changes in our world (like a Mandelbrot pattern) when perceptual responses are changed and varied. With all the many and varied perceptual responses (see above) this must be complex, but seeing and doing are seriously complex in any case.  [And this is no more complex than requiring representations to be built inside the head in order to store and enrich a two-dimensional retinal image.]

10. This point is important to counter the argument about only ever getting a flat two-dimensional image on the retina to work with in life. That is a passive version of perception, and Gibson and others repudiated that. We only ‘see’ when there is responding.  We do not just get a two-dimensional image on the retina; we get a changing two-dimensional image on the retina when we move our heads, bodies, necks, eyes, lens, etc.  So the whole notion of perception being a passive reception of light waves is what leads us astray in our thinking.

11. Artists and photographers are in a different situation because they have to construct a type of 3-D for the observer when the observer cannot make a change or difference by doing some of those perceptual responses listed above (such as moving behind the painting). But this is a very different ‘3-D’ to walking across the room without treading on the cat, and in fact Gibson wrote a lot about the differences between the two.

12. In a weird sense, therefore, we do not see things. We respond differentially in the presence of those things, depending upon our previous experiences. But this does not require ‘storing’ a ‘memory’ of that thing and ‘matching’ it when next we come across it in the world.  If we have behaved differentially the first time, then on a second time meeting that thing (or situation, it does not have to be an object), our perceptual responses will already now be different than they were the first time we bumped into that thing. (see the plasticine metaphor in Guerin, 2016).

13. As an analogy, when a flautist grasps a flute they do not have to match the ‘feeling’ or ‘sensation’ of the flute and its holes with a previous representation. The active responding by the hands and the small movements of the hand and its muscles does the remembering for us. If it is not a flute, or even if it is a different sort of flute, that will lead to different responding (for example, making adjustments or saying, “Hey, this feels different!”).  We do not have to match current sensations with previously stored versions from our head.  The flute and the hands together are the ‘memories’.  It is transdermal.

14. Brookes (1991) showed how he and his team built robots which could move about the environment successfully without ‘building’ a representation of those environments.

15. This also leads one to think about ‘attention’ differently. In the traditional models of perception-as-building-a-representation, attending is about letting in more light to make a better or more complete retinal image. With seeing as doing, on the other hand, attending (note this is active) means having the chance to behave both more and in different ways so that the whole organism responds differently in that situation.  We do not stare at a van Gogh to let in more light so our representation is bigger and brighter.  We stare (if it is not just a social act of course) so that all the perceptual responses listed earlier can change and channel other differentiated relationships between the perceptual responses and the rest of our actions (although too often this is just to make nifty social comments).

16. Another irony, pointed out many times by Gibson, is that psychologists will show you a visual illusion that can either look like a rabbit or a white duck, and we get it wrong! In doing this they are again trying to prove the (incorrect) point that the environment cannot fully determine what we ‘see’.  But Gibson’s reply was that in doing this you have removed all the features of the world, all the details and textures which lead to differential responding for perceptual responses.  Why would you expect people to ‘see’ properly under such conditions?  He often pointed out that most perception experiments are not helpful because they remove all the details of the world which can be differentially acted upon and then ‘prove’ that perception is weak.

17. As a useful analogy for you to try, have someone place an object in an opaque bag. Then insert one of your hands for only 2 seconds and try to guess what it is (behave differentially that is). Then allow another 2 seconds.  Then another 2 seconds.  What you find yourself doing is ‘acting’ out all sorts of different ‘hand responses’ which allow your hands and your whole organisms to respond in ways it has before (calling out a name, most likely, “It’s an egg!”).

Now you think about ‘perception’ in the same way.  Looking at an object or a scene, all your perceptual responses (listed earlier) are actively behaving in ways you have learned and, depending upon your life experiences, will lead to responses from the whole organism (“Wow! Look at the little black specks in those sunflowers!”).

18. So, far from perception being a passive reception of light rays onto your two-dimensional retina, it is, as Gibson always maintained, a very, very active event of perceptual responses behaving. We do not notice these responses so we commonly talk about perception as a passive act. (I do notice sometimes that when I am watching cricket on television, I move my head as I would to see the wicket-keeper’s gloves behind the wickets.  Like paintings and photographs, it does not work…)

19. A lot of the problems arise from confusions with common language . Just because we move towards things but don’t tread on them (usually), does not mean that we ‘see those things’ in the colloquial way of talking (and this includes philosophy), nor does it mean that we must build a picture or representation (psychology). The difference I am pushing here is between these questions:

  • How do we ‘see the cat’ in order that we do not trip over it?
  • How do we not trip over the cat?

20. In fact, it is our common way of talking that has wrongly presented philosophers and psychologists with the research question they think they must solve: how do we ‘see a cat’? Radical thinking around perception suggests this is a misguided question to solve and we must solve a more active problem about responding differentially in our world: “How do we not trip over the cat?” This does not have to involve “seeing a cat”; that is just the way we normally talk about it in everyday life.

21. You can walk across the room and not trip over the cat without ‘seeing’ the cat in the way that we normally talk about it. In fact, we do this all the time. Sometimes we might afterwards comment, ‘I must have seen the cat because I did not trip over it’, but this is social responding involving language.  Most of the time I can walk around my world and not bump into things or trip over things without saying or thinking what those things are.  The conditions for naming the things I avoid or miss are social conditions involving social relationships (maybe not wanting to look stupid).

Life would in fact be a total mess if we had to name everything in our worlds in order not to collide with them or trip over them.  Driving a car at high speed would be a nightmare!  But can you see where I am headed with this?  Much of the time we conflate and confuse ‘seeing things’ with ‘naming things’, but these two are very different and have very different properties.  In particular, ‘naming things’ is a social event whereas not tripping over the cat does not have to be social.

So my real point is that the arguments for why we need to ‘go beyond the information given’ and enrich our pathetically deficient retinal image, have only seemed plausible because they confuse talking about or naming what we do (‘I see a cat’, ‘I saw the cat and so I did not trip over’) with just avoiding tripping while walking.

22. This makes perception an active way of doing or behaving which involves our prior experiences and many types of actions (even more than just those listed earlier). Replacing ‘perceiving’ with ‘responding differentially’ involves an activity taking place, and is far removed from the normal passive way of talking about ‘seeing’ or perception.  Some refer to this as discrimination learning rather than ‘perception’ as the basic event that takes place but again, discrimination refers to behaving discriminatively not just naming differences.

23. We therefore only ‘see’ when there is responding, when we engage with our material environments.




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