An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • An Ecological Approach to PerceptualLearning and Development

  • This page intentionally left blank

  • An Ecological Approach toPerceptual Learning andDevelopment





    Oxford New YorkAuckland Bangkok Buenos Aires Cape Town ChennaiDar es Salaam Delhi Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi KolkataKuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai NairobiSao Paulo Shanghai Taipei Tokyo Toronto

    Copyright 2000 Oxford University Press, Inc.

    First published in 2000 by Oxford University Press, Inc.198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016

    First issued as an Oxford University Press paperback, 2003

    Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataGibson, Eleanor Jack.

    An ecological approach to perceptual learning and development /Eleanor J. Gibson, Anne D. Pick.

    p. cm.Includes bibliographical references and index.ISBN 0-19-511825-1; 0-19-516549-7 (pbk.)1. Perception in infants. 2. Perceptual learning.

    3. Infant psychology. I. Pick, Anne D. II. Title.BF720.P47G53 2000155.4'137dc21 99-28267

    9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

    Printed in the United States of Americaon acid-free paper

  • Preface

    This book aims to present a point of view consistent with biological evolution-ary principles and at the same time with meaningful, humanistic ones. Morespecifically, it aims to make sense of a wealth of evidence now available on theway perception develops in early life; to present a way of thinking about howlearning occurs in the process of perceiving; to show how perceptual develop-ment underlies knowledge about the world; and to relate these ideas to the eco-logical approach to perception as conceived by James J. Gibson and carried onby many able psychologists.

    The human species enjoys by all counts the longest period of developmentof any we know of, including the other primates. What is going on during thatlong period? What are infants, for many months incapable of locomotion or evenof handling objects, learning during this period? Plenty, as we will show. Manypeople have been amazed and impressed by the intellectual achievements ofHelen Keller, both blind and deaf. How could she have a concept of "water," forexample, when her tutor first spelled it in her hand? Her achievements are amaz-ing, indeed, but we understand them better when we remember that she suf-fered the illness that robbed her of sight and hearing at 19 months. Now weknow that those first 19 months provide developing infants with a wealth of ex-perience that they do indeed use to advantage. They are acquiring an educationby their own efforts, from the start.

    Anyone who takes the time to think about it will recognize that perceptuallearning has to play a large and important role in development. It is, we suggest,the only way of learning about the world, about oneself, and about the relationbetween these two interdependent entities before a child can benefit from ver-bal instruction. Prelinguistic infants may be able to think, but they must have

  • vi Preface

    matter for thought. They are indeed interested in language, and they listen tospeech attentively. Even here, perceptual learning plays a principal role. Welearn the basics about what people are trying to communicate to us, wherethings are, what things are useful for, how to control objects and people, andmany other things long before we can understand a compound sentence. Prelin-guistic infants of 10 to 12 months already know a great deal about the worldaround them. They have accomplished this for the most part on their own, spon-taneously motivated and independent of applied "reinforcers." A good theoryof perceptual learning helps us understand how this accomplishment is pos-sible.

    Many factors interact in this early acquisition of major knowledge, includ-ing ones within the young organism. They make their contributions inter-actively, at different points in development. The view we take in this bookstresses the contributions of physical growth, motor development, and other or-ganismic factors. Information flows from them as well as from the world. But atthe very core lies the interaction of animal and environment. The notion of an-imal-environment reciprocity and its importance for perceptual learning is theunderlying theme of this book.

    Many friends and colleagues have helped us immeasurably by contributing toour thinking about perceptual learning and development, critically reading allor parts of the manuscript, and generously giving advice and encouragement.We are especially grateful to Karen Adolph, Lorraine Bahrick, Rachel Clifton,Marion Eppler, Ross Flom, Douglas Gentile, Marjorie Grene, Marian Heinrichs,Carolyn Palmer, Herbert L. Pick, Jr., Ad Smitsman, Nelson Soken, and ArleneWalker-Andrews.

    This book would never have happened at all, of course, were it not for theideas of James J. Gibson, who inspired us to contemplate how his ecological ap-proach would apply to perceptual development. It turns out to be a wonderfulfit, we think, and we wish he could have seen how it works.

    June 1999 E.J.G.A.D.P.

  • Contents

    1 Historical Perspectives and Present-DayConfrontations 3

    2 An Ecological Approach to PerceptualDevelopment 14

    3 Studying Perceptual Development in Preverbal Infants:Tasks, Methods, and Motivation 26

    4 Development and Learning in Infancy 45

    5 What Infants Learn About: Communication 52

    6 What Infants Learn About: Interactionwith Objects 75

    7 What Infants Learn About: Locomotionand the Spatial Layout 103

    8 The Learning Process in Infancy: Facts and Theory 134

    9 Hallmarks of Human Behavior 159

    10 The Role of Perception in Developmentbeyond Infancy 177

    References 203

    Index 227

  • This page intentionally left blank

  • An Ecological Approach to PerceptualLearning and Development

  • This page intentionally left blank

  • 1

    Historical Perspectivesand Present-Day Confrontations

    A book on perception should begin with what perception is about. The answeris at once easy and hard. It is easy because perceiving is something we all en-gage in, hardly stopping even in sleep. Perceiving is our means of keeping intouch with the world, of obtaining information about the world and where weare in it. The process of obtaining this information is so natural that it can behard to explain that there are problems in understanding it. There are, and theyhave persisted over centuries. Are you and the world separate entities? If so,how is it that you can know about what goes on outside you? This question ofhow we come by knowledge of the world is as old as humanity. We havelearned a good deal about the activity of perceiving. It is an ongoing activity,a search for information specifying the events and layout around us. It is a con-tinuous process, and it provides us with fundamental knowledge that we takefor granted.

    Persistent Issues in the Study of Perceptual Development

    Psychological approaches to understanding how we acquire knowledge of ourworld and ourselves by perceiving have roots in early philosophical positionson fundamental issues about human knowledge. These epistemological posi-tions persist as assumptions underlying contemporary views of perceiving.Three such issues are: the origins of knowledge, dualism or the mind-body prob-lem, and the nature of development. We begin with these and trace their influ-ence on present-day contemporary approaches to the study of perceptual de-velopment.


  • 4 An Ecological Approach

    Perhaps the oldest issue is the question of where knowledge originates.Does it come from the world? Of course, we have knowledge of ourselves, too.Could it be that ideas about the world and ourselves are somehow implanted inour minds, along with a faculty of reason that allows us to construct logically akind of representation of the world and ourselves in it? Two opposed views, ra-tionalismnativism on the one hand and empiricism on the other, have flour-ished for centuries. Rationalism is a view usually associated with ImmanuelKant, a German philosopher, who thought that ideas about major concepts suchas space, time, and causality were innate, implanted in our minds a priori, with-out learning, and that we used these ideas to construct our views of the world.Perceiving took its meaning from concepts; according to Kant, "percepts with-out concepts are blind." Descartes was another well-known rationalist, scientistas well as philosopher, who held that we were endowed with a soul and a mindthat could direct our behavior and inform our views about the world and our-selves.

    The British empiricists, notably John Locke and David Hume, took firm is-sue with the rationalist doctrines of innate ideas. The empiricists had a stronginfluence on early views of perception that held that mental content was de-rived from experience. These extreme empiricists thought infants were bornwithout knowledge of any kind and had to learn for themselves as the world im-pinged on their senses. Empiricists have always made learning a central part oftheir theories, generally emphasizing association as the process that cementsideas together. Learning as an associative process of accretion dominated Amer-ican perceptual theory for decades.

    Rene Descartes was largely responsible for a second major epistemologicalposition eventually carried into psychology. Animals respond to stimuli, andtheir responses can be observed and analyzed, he thought, in purely mechanis-tic terms. Humans, however, have minds that contain mental representations,images, thoughts, and concepts, inner structures that are not observable to theoutsider and that direct and intervene in behavior. This mind-body dualism, cen-tral to major arguments of other philosophers, was inherited by early psycholo-gists in the form of positions as to what the content of psychology should be.

    Titchener, for example, thought that psychology should deal only withmental content. He defined psychology as "the source of existential experienceregarded as dependent on the nervous system" (1929, p. 142). Psychology wasto study "sensations," whereas biology: was to study "behavior." Many psy-chologists define psychology in terms of mental representations and seek to ob-jectify their positions by identifying mind with the nervous system. Hebb(1974), speaking for a later generation, said that "psychology is about the mind"(p. 74) but went on to say that "mind is the capacity for thought, and thought isthe integrative activity of the brain" (p. 75). This is a popular idea today amongcognitive psychologists, who stress mental representations and hope to linkthem to neural architecture.

  • Historical Perspectives and Present-Day Confrontations 5

    A third issue continuing to influence contemporary research concerns de-velopmentthe nature of the changes that occur and the causes for them. Arethere qualitative changes in the course of development? Or is the course of de-velopment one of linear, incremental quantitative change? Positions on this is-sue motivate inquiry about so-called discontinuities as opposed to continuitiesin development. This issue is less firmly rooted in early philosophical positionsthan the other two; however, it is an issue that has pervaded the study of de-velopment for many decades.

    Piaget's is the best-known theory representing the view that developmentis characterized by discontinuities. It was his view that development occurs instages, in a regular progression of preordained steps. There is orderly, regulardevelopment within a stage, but eventually there is a reorganization of cogni-tive structures leading to a qualitatively different new phase of development.The alternative view that development is incremental and continuous is repre-sented by psychologists who performed early experiments on learning withinfants and children (e.g., Razran, 1933; Jones & Yoshioka, 1938) and whoemphasized similarity in learning skills and outcomes for children and adults(Munn, 1946).

    Theorists of perception have taken various positions on these persisting is-sues. Approaches to perceptual development can be distinguished by their ap-parent empiricist or rationalist assumptions about the origins of knowledge.They can also be distinguished by their emphasis on the role of responses andaction in perceptual development or on the role of mental processes and inter-nal representations of knowledgevestiges of dualism and its influence onwhat is the proper domain for psychology. This distinction is related to anoth-er opposition, a structural approach concerned with content, in contrast to afunctional approach concerned with change and adaptation to environmentalconditions. There are also two views of perceptual development as continuousor stagelike, varying in their relative emphases on the importance of learning inperceptual development. We present an overview of major approaches to per-ceptual development, alluding to important distinctions between those ap-proaches and the ecological approach, before proceeding, in the next chapter,to present the ecological approach.

    Early Theories of Perceptual Development

    Although psychologists did not talk explicitly about perceptual learning as im-portant in development until 40 or so years ago, implicit theories of perceptuallearning have existed far longer than that, for example in the writings of theBritish philosophers Berkeley and the two Mills, James and his son, John Stu-art. They taught that laws of association between sensations and other mentalelements such as images accounted for perceptual development. Berkeley was

  • 6 An Ecological Approach

    responsible for the notion that because the retina is flat, excitations from it mustresult in depthless sensations, thus making associations with other sensations,such as those involved in touching things, responsible for perceived depth. Aquite different principle was introduced by Helmholtz (1821-1894), the greatphysicist and physiologist. He believed that perception develops by inferencefrom previous experience. He thought that the inferences were unconscious, butthey nevertheless were like conclusions drawn from premises and already ex-isting knowledge.

    The two principles, association on the one hand and inference on the oth-er, underlay nearly all the early theoretical accounts of perceptual development.An important variation was introduced by William James, the great Americanpsychologist (James, 1890), who brought a functional view to psychology. Herelied on association as an explanatory principle, but he introduced a new con-ception of what was to be explained. Specifically, explanations of perceptionmust take account not only of the mental content, but also of its function as aprocess. James supposed that the function of perception was discrim...


View more >