May 25, 2017

Subjectivity of perception

Appendix 10 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978

If perception were a purely ‘mechanical’ process, environmental data would provide one with a very different image of the environment from that which we in fact ‘perceive’. This tends to confirm that it is achieved by the ‘brain’ or neuro-cybernism, i.e. a ‘hypothesis’ based on our particular mental model of our relationship with our environment.

For instance, we can differentiate between movements in our environment and shifts of the image on the retina due to the movement of our own eyes. We are capable of perceiving ‘phantom colours’, such as white and purple, which constitute gaps in the spectrum. We can distinguish between extreme cold and extreme heat, both of which transmit identical messages to the brain. Babies see everything the right way up, whereas, if they were to depend on their detecting mechanisms, they would see everything upside down. In general, as Kohler 155 writes:

“. . . the image is ‘better’ than it should be, considering the known defects in the visual system. For example, the lens of the eye is not corrected for spherical aberration; hence straight lines should look slightly curved. By the same token, lines of a certain curvature should appear straight. It is well known that the eye is not corrected for colour; as a result, different wavelengths of light—originating at a common point—do not come to a focus on the retina. One would expect this defect, called chromatic aberration, to have a noticeable effect on vision, but it does not, except under special conditions.”

Equally inexplicable, in terms of a ‘mechanical’ theory of perception, is the phenomenon of ‘constancy’, whereby things continue to look the same to us in spite of the fact that they have been physically modified. For instance, particular objects remain the same colour in spite of the fact that they may be subjected to different lights. Konrad Lorenz 156 writes:

“I see the top of my desk in always the same light brown colour, regardless of whether I look at it in the bluish morning light, in the strongly reddish light of the later afternoon, or in the yellow lights of an electric bulb. Factually the top of my desk reflects very different wavelengths under each one of these different circumstances, but my perception reports little or nothing of this. What it reports to me is, in the last analysis, no colour at all but a property constantly attached to the object, the property of reflecting light of one type of wavelength better than that of another . . .”

Lorenz 156 explains this in the following way:

“All apparati of constancy . . . are ‘ratiomorphic’, in the strictest sense, for all contain processes analogous to induction and deduction, all contain ‘hypotheses’ whose attunement is not absolute, but only to a high degree probable.”

Warren J. Wittreich157 sees it in much the same way:

“When we watch a person walk away from us, his image shrinks in size. But since we know for a fact that he is not shrinking, we make an unconscious correction, and ‘see’ him as retaining his full stature. Past experience tells us what his true stature is with respect to our own. Any sane and dependable expectation of the future requires that he have the same true stature when we next encounter him. Our perception is thus a prediction; it embraces the past and the future as well as the present.

The influence of expectation and anxiety on perception

Numerous experiments have demonstrated that people do not in fact see what is revealed by detecting devices, but rather what they expect to see—which will vary in each case in accordance with experience and hence with the personality of the perceiver. This only appears explicable in terms of a cybernismic theory of perception. For instance, Ittleson and Kilpatrick 158 have shown that:

“If a subject sits in a dark room, in which he can only see two star points of light, both equidistant from the observer, one of which is brighter, when the subject closes one eye, and keeps his head still, the brighter point of light looks nearer than the dimmer one. Such apparent differences are due not only to brightness but also to direction from the observer. If two points of light of equal brightness are situated near the floor, one about a foot above the other, the upper one will generally be perceived as farther away than the lower one; if they are near the ceiling the lower one will appear farther away.”

This they explain in the following way:

“When presented with two star points of different brightness, a person unconsciously ‘bets’ or ‘assumes’ that the two points, being similar, are probably identical (i.e. of equal brightness), and therefore that the one that seems brighter must be nearer. Similarly, the observed facts in the case of two star points placed vertically one above the other suggests that when we look down we assume, on the basis of past experience, that objects in the lower part of the visual field are nearer than the objects in the upper part; when we look up, we assume that the opposite is true.

“These phenomena cannot be explained by referring to ‘reality’ because ‘reality’ and perception do not correspond. They cannot be explained by reference to the pattern in the retina of the eye, because, for any given retinal pattern, there are an infinite number of brightness-size-distance combinations to which that pattern might be related. When faced with such a situation, in which an unlimited number of possibilities can be related to a given retinal pattern, the organism apparently calls upon its previous experience and assumes that what has been most probable in the past is most probable in the immediate occasion.”

The cybernismic nature of perception is illustrated even more dramatically by experiments in which the subject

“. . . wears a pair of glasses fitted with so-called anisiekonic lenses, which are ground in such a way that they give images of different sizes and shape to the two retinas. This produces very marked distortions of any object which the subject visualizes mainly through the use of two-eyed stereoscopic vision.”

In this way, the distortion produced by our normal detecting apparati is increased. In these experiments the subject succeeds in correcting the induced distortions, and actually sees what he expects to see, i.e. what in the light of his experience, or rather in the light of the model of the system that he has built up as a result of his experience, is judged to be the most probable interpretation of the environmental signals.

Other experiments have been conducted in a distorted room as originally designed by Adelbert Ames Jr. at the Institute for Associated Research, Hanover, N.H.:

“. . . in which the floor slopes up to the right of the observer, the real wall recedes from right to left, and the windows are of different sizes and trapezoidal in shape. When an observer looks at this room with one eye from a certain point, the room appears completely normal, as if the floor were level, the real wall at right angles to the line of sight and the windows rectangular and of the same size. Presumably the observer chooses this particular appearance instead of some other because of the assumptions he brings to the occasion. If he now takes a long stick and tries to touch the various parts of the room, he will be unsuccessful, even though he has gone into the situation knowing the true shape of the room. With practice, however, he becomes more and more successful in touching what he wants to touch with the stick. More important, he sees the room more and more in its true shape even though the stimulus pattern on his retina has remained unchanged.”

In the typical experiments carried out in the Ames room, the viewer sees a normal shaped room and instead sees distortion in the appearance of the people in the room; thus:

“A viewer observing the faces of her husband and another man at the windows of the small room reported that her husband’s face remained unchanged, though she observed the expected distortion in the face of the other man. Similarly, the other man appeared to grow or shrink as he walked to and fro in the larger room, while her husband underwent no change in size whatsoever. Cantril called this reaction the ‘honi’ phenomenon, after the woman’s nickname.”

Wittreich 157 and others made further experiments to explain this phenomenon. It was found that though other married couples did not always behave in this way, they did if the husband was an authority figure, and the wife felt a certain anxiety when she saw him. Soldiers were found to behave in this way with regard to their senior officers, as were amputees when they saw other amputees.

The results of these experiments are in keeping with the cybernismic theory of perception. Wittreich 157 concludes:

“Though I have spoken here of reacting to people and perceiving them as two distinct processes, these processes should not be regarded as being so separable as this wording suggests. In using such terms we are simply abstracting two aspects of a single process. The evidence points to the fusion of feeling and perceiving in a deeper understanding of the process of living.”

Ittleson and Kilpatrick interpret the results of such experiments thus:

“All these experiments, and many more that have been made, suggest strongly that perception is never a sure thing, never an absolute revelation of ‘what is’. Rather, what we see is a prediction—our own personal construction designed to give us the best possible bet for carrying out our purposes in action.”

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The influences of ontogenetic development on perception

If perception is the interpretation of data in terms of a model, then the value of the interpretation will depend on the quality of the model, which in turn will be a function of the number and value of the variables in terms of which the data can be classified and their degree of organisation.

This will increase during phylogeny and ontogeny. Thus the information derived from perception must be higher in the case of man than in that of an amoeba, in the case of an adult than in that of a child, and in the case of a knowledgeable man than in that of an ignorant one.

Bowen 159 shows that a child’s view of the world is rudimentary, and that it slowly develops as he grows up. The adult will have a totally different view, corresponding to his more highly developed cerebral cortex and to the considerable knowledge he will undoubtedly have accumulated over the years. This implies that what one sees is determined by one’s upbringing and education, a thesis that is confirmed by a number of experiments designed to determine the effect on perception of being deprived of the ability to perceive normal environmental data for long periods. Melzack 160 tells of such experiments:

“We raised Scottish Terriers in isolation from infancy to maturity so that they were deprived of normal environmental stimuli, including the bodily knocks and scrapes that young animals get in the course of growing up. We were surprised to find that when these dogs grew up they failed to respond normally to a flaming match. Some of them repeatedly poked their nose into the flame and sniffed at it as long as it was present. If they snuffed it out, they reacted similarly to a second flaming match and even to a third. Others did not sniff at the match but made no effort to get away when we touched their noses with the flame repeatedly. These dogs also endured pinpricks with little or no evident pain. In contrast, litter mates that had been reared in a normal environment recognized potential harm so quickly that we were usually unable to touch them with the flame or pin more than once. “This astonishing behaviour of dogs reared in isolation cannot be attributed to a general failure of the sensory conducting systems. Intense electric shock elicited violent excitement. Moreover, reflex movements made by the dogs during contact with fire and pinprick indicate that they may have felt something during stimulation, but the lack of any observable emotional disturbance, apart from the reflex movements, suggests that their perception of actual damage to the skin was highly abnormal.”

Equally illustrative are the cases described by Riesen 161 of patients operated on for congenital cataracts:

“These patients, who have passed all their lives in near-blindness, ranging from the bare ability to tell day from night to some ability to distinguish colours and localize light, invariably report an immediate awareness of change after a successful operation. They begin at once to distinguish differences in the parts of the visual field, although they cannot identify any object or describe its shape. After a few days’ practice they can name colours. From this point on progress is slow, often highly discouraging, and some patients never get beyond the ability to distinguish brightness and colour. Others, over a period of months and even years, develop the ability to identify simple geometric figures, read letters and numbers and, in rare cases, to identify faces. During their efforts to improve their visual skill, the patients go through a long period of picking out elements in an object and inferring the nature of the object from these elements, often erroneously. For example, a child of twelve, some months after her operation, is reported by her doctor to have pointed to a picture and called it ‘a camel’, ‘because it has a hump’. What she identified as a hump was the dorsal fin of a fish.”

The effect of isolation on perception does not differ in any way from its effect on other cybernismic functions.

A child isolated from its normal social and physical environment for a long period will, once restored to it, be capable of but the most rudimentary behaviour. This is illustrated by the recorded instances of children found in a wild state, or brought up by animals. In none of these cases was the child ever capable of learning more than a few words of human language, for instance, in spite of a considerable effort on the part of their tutors. This is particularly true in the cases of Victor de l’Aveyron, Kamala of Midnapore, Dina Sanichar and Anna of Pennsylvania. They remained mentally stunted in every respect. Dina Sanichar, for instance, who died at the age of forty, probably never achieved the mental age of one and a half; and Kamala, who lived to be seventeen, that of three and half.162

Numerous experiments with monkeys lead one to the same conclusion. According to Harlow and Kuenne,163 they all,

“. . . indicate that animals, human and subhuman, must learn to think. Thinking does not develop spontaneously as an expression of innate abilities; it is the end result of a long learning process. Years ago, the British biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, suggested that the ‘brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The brain is essential to thought, but the untutored brain is not enough, no matter how good a brain it may be.”

These experiments all tend to confirm the thesis that perception involves the postulation of hypotheses in the light of a model. At birth, when this model is rudimentary, the hypotheses based on it will be correspondingly so, and, as the model evolves, so will there be an improvement in perception and cybernization in general, permitting thereby a corresponding increase in behavioural stability. The influence of suggestion on perception

The fact that the sensations and perceptions of hypnotised people can be affected very radically by the hypnotist is well-known. Bernheim was apparently the first to propose that hypnosis is in fact nothing more than an extreme form of ‘suggestion’. Since then it has become apparent that everybody is continually being subjected to various forms of suggestion that will influence them to a greater or lesser degree, in accordance with their particular degree of suggestibility, and also in accordance with the prestige of the source of the suggestion. A large number of experiments have been conducted to determine the effect of suggestion and hence of public opinion on people’s perceptions. The result of these experiments has been to show that perception is very much open to the influence of public opinion. To quote Asch: 164

“When confronted with opinions contrary to their own, many subjects apparently shifted their judgement in the direction of the view of the majorities or the experts.

“The late psychologist Edward L. Thorndyke reported that he had succeeded in modifying the aesthetic preferences of adults by this procedure. Other psychologists reported that people’s evaluations of the merit of a literary passage could be raised or lowered by ascribing the passage to different authors. Apparently the sheer weight of numbers or authority sufficed to change opinions, even when no arguments for the opinions themselves were provided.”

In a series of experiments conducted by Asch 164 and others, a group of students at Harvard were presented with lines of different sizes, and were told to graduate them according to size. All the members of the group except one, chosen at random, had been previously instructed to give the sizes in the wrong order. The odd man out was thus faced with a dilemma: he must either give preference to the evidence of his ‘senses’, or to that of the opinion of the majority. How did he react? This experiment was carried out 123 times, with different groups, and in each case a different person was put in the minority position. In 36.8% of these experiments, the latter yielded to the opinion of the majority. Asch shows that people can be classified in accordance with their tendency to do so. Behaviour in this respect is highly consistent:

“Those who strike out on the path of independence do not, as a rule, succumb to the majority even over an extended series of trials, while those who choose the path of compliance are unable to free themselves as the ordeal is prolonged.”

Asch shows considerable concern at the implications of these experiments. Thus:

“That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.”

This behaviour is totally in keeping with the cybernismic view of perception. The model that a person builds up of his environment must be very much influenced by those of his fellow citizens. If it were not, then different societies could not develop different cultural patterns.

The implication of this is enormous. It explains, among other things, how scientists who have been imbued with the values of industrial civilisation will generally interpret data in such a way as to rationalise conclusions that are consistent with these values. Only the strongest and most independent among them will be able to come to conclusions that are inconsistent with these values.

No fact could be more indicative of the total inadequacy of perception for obtaining information or for verifying hypotheses with that measure of objectivity that is required of science.

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155. Ivo Kohler, ‘Experiments with goggles’ Scientific American May, 1962.

156. Konrad Lorenz, ‘Gestalt perception as fundamental to scientific knowledge’ General Systems Yearbook Vol. VII, 1962.

157. W.J. Wittreich ‘Visual Perception and Personality’ Scientific American April, 1959.

158. W. Ittleson and W. Kilpatrick, ‘Experiments in perception’ Scientific American August, 1951.

159. T.C.R. Bowen ‘The Visual World of Infants’ Scientific American December, 1961.

160. R. Melzac, ‘The Perception of Pain’ Scientific American February, 1968.

161. A.H. Riesen, ‘Arrested Vision’ Scientific American July, 1950.

162. J.A.L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg, Wolf Children and Feral Man Harper & Bros., New York, 1942.

163. H.F. Harlow and Margaret Kuenne, ‘Learning to Think’ Scientific American 1949.

164. S.E. Asch, ‘Opinions & Social Pressure’ Scientific American November 1955.

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