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How the Perceptual System Interprets the Environment

6 October, 2015 - 16:25

This meaning-making involves the automatic operation of a variety of essential perceptual processes. One of these is sensory interaction—the working together of different senses to create experience. Sensory interaction is involved when taste, smell, and texture combine to create the flavor we experience in food. It is also involved when we enjoy a movie because of the way the images and the music work together.

Although you might think that we understand speech only through our sense of hearing, it turns out that the visual aspect of speech is also important. One example of sensory interaction is shown in the McGurk effect—an error in perception that occurs when we misperceive sounds because the audio and visual parts of the speech are mismatched. You can witness the effect yourself by viewing Video Clip: The McGurk Effect.

Video Clip: The McGurk Effect

The McGurk effect (missing in original book) is an error in sound perception that occurs when there is a mismatch between the senses of hearing and seeing. You can experience it here.

Other examples of sensory interaction include the experience of nausea that can occur when the sensory information being received from the eyes and the body does not match information from the vestibular system (Flanagan, May, & Dobie, 2004) 1 and synesthesia—an experience in which one sensation (e.g., hearing a sound) creates experiences in another (e.g., vision). Most people do not experience synesthesia, but those who do link their perceptions in unusual ways, for instance, by experiencing color when they taste a particular food or by hearing sounds when they see certain objects (Ramachandran, Hubbard, Robertson, & Sagiv, 2005). 2

Another important perceptual process is selective attention—the ability to focus on some sensory inputs while tuning out others. View Video Clip: Selective Attention and count the number of times the people playing with the ball pass it to each other. You may find that, like many other people who view it for the first time, you miss something important because you selectively attend to only one aspect of the video (Simons & Chabris, 1999). 3 Perhaps the process of selective attention can help you see why the security guards completely missed the fact that the Chaser group’s motorcade was a fake—they focused on some aspects of the situation, such as the color of the cars and the fact that they were there at all, and completely ignored others (the details of the security information).

Video Clip: Selective Attention

Watch this video (missing in original book) and carefully count how many times the people pass the ball to each other.

Selective attention also allows us to focus on a single talker at a party while ignoring other conversations that are occurring around us (Broadbent, 1958; Cherry, 1953). 4 Without this automatic selective attention, we’d be unable to focus on the single conversation we want to hear. But selective attention is not complete; we also at the same time monitor what’s happening in the channels we are not focusing on. Perhaps you have had the experience of being at a party and talking to someone in one part of the room, when suddenly you hear your name being mentioned by someone in another part of the room. This cocktail party phenomenon shows us that although selective attention is limiting what we processes, we are nevertheless at the same time doing a lot of unconscious monitoring of the world around us—you didn’t know you were attending to the background sounds of the party, but evidently you were.

A second fundamental process of perception is sensory adaptation—a decreased sensitivity to a stimulus after prolonged and constant exposure. When you step into a swimming pool, the water initially feels cold, but after a while you stop noticing it. After prolonged exposure to the same stimulus, our sensitivity toward it diminishes and we no longer perceive it. The ability to adapt to the things that don’t change around us is essential to our survival, as it leaves our sensory receptors free to detect the important and informative changes in our environment and to respond accordingly. We ignore the sounds that our car makes every day, which leaves us free to pay attention to the sounds that are different from normal, and thus likely to need our attention. Our sensory receptors are alert to novelty and are fatigued after constant exposure to the same stimulus.

If sensory adaptation occurs with all senses, why doesn’t an image fade away after we stare at it for a period of time? The answer is that, although we are not aware of it, our eyes are constantly flitting from one angle to the next, making thousands of tiny movements (called saccades) every minute. This constant eye movement guarantees that the image we are viewing always falls on fresh receptor cells. What would happen if we could stop the movement of our eyes? Psychologists have devised a way of testing the sensory adaptation of the eye by attaching an instrument that ensures a constant image is maintained on the eye’s inner surface. Participants are fitted with a contact lens that has miniature slide projector attached to it. Because the projector follows the exact movements of the eye, the same image is always projected, stimulating the same spot, on the retina. Within a few seconds, interesting things begin to happen. The image will begin to vanish, then reappear, only to disappear again, either in pieces or as a whole. Even the eye experiences sensory adaptation (Yarbus, 1967). 5

One of the major problems in perception is to ensure that we always perceive the same object in the same way, despite the fact that the sensations that it creates on our receptors changes dramatically. The ability to perceive a stimulus as constant despite changes in sensation is known as perceptual constancy. Consider our image of a door as it swings. When it is closed, we see it as rectangular, but when it is open, we see only its edge and it appears as a line. But we never perceive the door as changing shape as it swings—perceptual mechanisms take care of the problem for us by allowing us to see a constant shape.

The visual system also corrects for color constancy. Imagine that you are wearing blue jeans and a bright white t-shirt. When you are outdoors, both colors will be at their brightest, but you will still perceive the white t-shirt as bright and the blue jeans as darker. When you go indoors, the light shining on the clothes will be significantly dimmer, but you will still perceive the t-shirt as bright. This is because we put colors in context and see that, compared to its surroundings, the white t-shirt reflects the most light (McCann, 1992). 6 In the same way, a green leaf on a cloudy day may reflect the same wavelength of light as a brown tree branch does on a sunny day. Nevertheless, we still perceive the leaf as green and the branch as brown.