In this chapter of Bel Canto I found myself interested in how characters see the world. Ishmael specifically was the main initiator of this though due to the way he stared at the chessboard Mr. Hosokawa and General Benjamin were playing on. Some process allowed Ishmael to recognize the chessboard, even without knowing the underlying meaning behind each piece, and pass information off to higher level thinking. What I wondered was how this perception process functions within the brain. The way we perceive the world has such an influence over all other cognitive functions, it serves as a foundation for higher level cognitive thought.
Complementary to my previous research on mental models and memories is how both are actually created through observations of the real world. One of the most influential researchers in this field is J. J. Gibson and in his book “The Perception of the Visual World” he discusses the two main camps that exist when it comes to perception processing. One of which is called “bottom-up” processing which assumes that the raw sensory data itself is the start of perception. Similar to how you can draw single lines on a piece of paper and after a few lines begin to see a pattern the same thing is going on in the brain according to the bottom-up theory. A competing idea called “top-down processing” was established by Gregory around the same time. This theory assumes that the brain uses the context of a scene to aid in pattern recognition. This is demonstrated by how even with jumbled words humans can still decipher, very accurately, the intended word and sentence as demonstrated by research from Rayner, White, Johnson, and Liversedge in the report “Raeding Wrods With Jubmled Lettres.”
This line of reasoning also brought up the idea of how privy input processes in the brain are to previously acquired knowledge. Some of the first work done on this matter was done by Fodor who mentions in his 1983 work “Modularity of Mind” that “there are restrictions upon the allocation of internally represented information to input processes.” Fodor coined the term “informational encapsulation” to describe this idea. The go-to example to demonstrate informational encapsulation is the way that an individual can be told how an optical illusion works yet still be susceptible to the visual effect. In his initial presentation of this theory Fodor used the Müller-Lyer illusion of two lines of equal length but with one line tipped with arrows pointing inward and the other line tipped with arrows pointing outward (Gregory, 55). Even after the conscious mind recognizes the unconscious mind’s failing that knowledge is isolated from the mental process creating the image.
Pylyshyn in his theory of “cognitive impenetrability”takes Fodor’s idea and goes to the extreme by thinking that all knowledge is blocked from the senses. An interesting accidental discovery by McGurk and Macdonald showed that after accidentally dubbing the phrase “ga” over a silent video of lips pronouncing the phrase “ba” the resulting video made the sound “da.” This discovery is now famously referred to as the McGurk effect and shows that even though the process of perception is encapsulated from conscious, learned, knowledge it can still be influenced by other data sources like how the visual information overrided the auditory information in this example. After testing this initial observation on a group of school children and adults they found another revealing aspect of the mind. It turns out that adults are more susceptible to their visual sense influencing their auditory sense than the children were. This hints at a possible correlation between brain development between childhood and adulthood and the source information accessible to perception processes. Ronald Forgus in his book “The Basic Process in Cognitive Development” notes that Jean Piaget had a similar notion for cognitive development in which “a child is unable to form certain concepts until he has learned to perceive certain relationships among stimuli” (5). This possible link between cognition, childhood brain development, and the influences between stimuli would be an interesting route to explore in future research.
One major competitor to Fodor’s theory of encapsulation was Churchland in 1988. He argued that Fodor’s theoretical neutrality, or informational encapsulation theory was wrong since “perceptual plasticity is not the rule, but rather the exception” meaning that the brain itself is very adaptable but perception is simply an instance of limited adaptability. In addition Churchland found fault with the theory itself because if the process of perception is not influenced by cognitive processes then it is essentially sensations devoid of reason thereby making them useless in any theoretical framework for perception. (Raftopoulos, 424) In general, both of these processes have been shown to be useful classifications for at least some parts of perception and so the current overarching theory combines both. Research done by Hildreth and Ulmann was a driving force in this realization and created an intermediate level of perception that is neither bottom-up nor top-down. (Raftopoulos, 426)
In culmination, perception is what you make of it. Gibson and Gregory provided the backbone theories that helped establish the field. Fodor with his informational encapsulation theory initiated a still ongoing debate over the influence of cognitive thought in perception processing. Pylyshyn tried to expand Fodor’s idea but it fizzled out before gaining traction. McGurk and Macdonald was instrumental in demonstrating Fodor’s encapsulation isn’t holistic but rather divided. Then Churchland, a main opponent to Fodor, reasoned that Fodor’s encapsulation is an exception rather than the rule and the overall goal of Fodor’s research. In the end both theories have somewhat merged and through Hildreth and Ulmann varying levels of encapsulation, top-down, and bottom-up processing are now the predominant theory. Overall, perception is the foundation on which all cognitive thought is based and through continued research even more of that process can be understood.
– Michael Pedersen
Fodor, Jerry A. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1983. Print.
Forgus, Ronald H. Perception: The Basic Process in Cognitive Development. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. Print.
Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Print.
Gibson, James J. The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Print.
Gregory, R L. Concepts and Mechanisms of Perception. New York: Scribner, 1974. Print.
McGurk, H, and J MacDonald. “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices.” Nature. 264.5588 (1976): 23-30. Print.
Raftopoulos, Athanassios. “Is Perception Informationally Encapsulated? the Issue of the Theory-Ladenness of Perception.” Cognitive Science. 25.3 (2001): 423-451. Print
Rayner, K, SJ White, RL Johnson, and SP Liversedge. “Raeding Wrods with Jubmled Lettres: There Is a Cost.” Psychological Science. 17.3 (2006): 192-3. Print.