Perception Psychology - How We Understand Our World

Our eyes are one of our main sources of perception and sensory information, helping us to understand our world through visual input
Our eyes are one of our main sources of perception and sensory information, helping us to understand our world through visual input | Source

Perception in psychology can be defined as the analysis of sensory information within the brain. As we go through our day, we are surrounded by the rich stimuli of modern life and we rely heavily on our sight to inform us of where we are placed within this world. Through perception we obtain a description of our surroundings and what they mean.

Debate has been ongoing for many years on exactly what role sensory visual information plays within perception and how important our memories and past experiences are in this process.

Visual Perception Psychology

Visual perception is generally given more attention in psychology due to the sheer volume of research available on vision compared to other sensory areas.

The human eye is a remarkable organ which takes in visual stimulus and sends this sensory information to the brain.

Diagram of the Eye
Diagram of the Eye | Source

How the eye works

  • The eye relies on light which passes through the cornea
  • This light is focused by the lens and the cornea onto the retina, a light sensitive membrane on the back surface of the eye
  • It is the receptor cells in the retina that translate the light into images.
  • Our retina has two classes of receptor cells called rods and cones, both of which are sensitive to light.

Rods respond better to low light levels; therefore they are the cells responsible for maintaining some vision in poor light. Cones are responsible for our ability to detect fine detail and different colours and are the basis of our vision at higher (daylight) light levels.

A significant area of retina is the macula and the fovea. The fovea is an area that contains the highest density of cones and is responsible for perception of fine detail. The optic nerve can then take this information up into the brain.

Interesting Human Eye Facts

Processing Visual Information in the Brain

There are two processes associated with vision which are dependent on the directional flow of information; top-down processing and bottom-up processing.

Various theories of visual perception have been proposed within psychology.

Some fall very much within the bottom-up processing viewpoint where all the information required for perception comes from the visual sensory input.

In contrast, others favour a top-down processing viewpoint, that prior knowledge and past experience is the key to accurate perception of the world around us.

Visual Processing

Models of Visual Processing
Models of Visual Processing | Source

Perception Theory - Direct Realism

James Gibson was a leading psychologist in the theory of direct realism. Put simply the realist view is that we perceive objects as they really are in the world.

This is a bottom-up approach to perception in that our senses are able to provide us with accurate direct information from the external world.

Gibson’s approach to perception is an ecological one. He claimed the visual information we take in from our environment is so rich that cognitive processing and internal representations to make sense of that information are not required.

Aeroplane Landing
Aeroplane Landing | Source

Gibson worked with aeroplane pilots in World War II.

He concluded that a pilot's point of focus on a runway remained stationary as they flew towards it. However, the areas and landscapes around this point flowed outwards as the pilots got closer to landing.

It is from this work Gibson created the term ‘optical flow’ and he believed its principles gave the pilots he worked with more detailed information regarding their distance from the runway and their speed.

Example of Gibson's Optic Flow Pattern
Example of Gibson's Optic Flow Pattern | Source

Optical Flow Patterns

Our heads are rarely stationary and neither are our eyes, therefore our world is almost always in motion.

If this movement flows outward from a centre point of focus we are moving towards this point. However, if movement flows inward towards a centre point we are moving away from it.

Making sense of what we see

Gibson claimed the series of angles formed by light reflecting into our eyes from surfaces within the environment are crucial to how we understand what we are seeing.

He suggested this ‘optic array’ provided vital information to aid our perception including distance and speed.

This theory of optic flow patterns is useful in everyday life to inform us of which direction we are moving relative to the objects around us. Simply, if there is movement within our optic array then we are moving.

Marr’s Perception Theory

A key criticism of Gibson’s theories is that they don’t explain how information is picked up from the environment.

Marr (1982) attempted to address this by examining exactly how the brain is able to take information sensed by the eyes and turn it into accurate, internal representations of our surrounding world.

Marr's Theory of Perception Diagram
Marr's Theory of Perception Diagram | Source

Like Gibson, Marr says information from the senses is enough to allow perception to occur. But unlike Gibson, Marr’s approach puts processes responsible for analysing retinal images at the centre of his theory.

Marr’s theory is strongly ‘bottom-up’ as it views the initial retinal image as the starting point of perception and explores how it might be analysed to produce a description of the environment.

Perception Psychology and Illusions

Optical visual illusions are an area of great interest to visual researchers but also cannot be explained by Gibson’s direct realism theory.

In visual illusions we often see movement within patterns and two-dimensional images such as ripples or rotations that are not really there. The well-known ‘Rotating Snakes’ illusions is a good example of this.

When prompted, Gibson's explanation, is that such illusions are artificial. They are not real-world images and not the type of stimulus we encounter on day to day basis. Therefore, they are not representative of how our visual system operates.

Constructive Perception

The leading opposing view of Gibson's visual perception is that of Gregory (1970). Gregory’s view is termed a ‘constructive’ view of perception as it is a top-down processing theory based on construction of our world from past experiences alongside real-time visual information.

Gregory claims the visual information available to us is not always of a high enough quality and therefore the brain needs to fill in the gaps by using prior knowledge, memories and similar experiences to understand what is around us.

“The task of the eye and brain is quite different from either a photographic or a television camera converting objects merely into images”

— Gregory, 1966

Gregory suggests a great deal of information taken in by our eyes is lost en route to the brain.

The information the brain uses to understand this visual input does not always match the reality of what we are actually seeing. This he says, is why we see visual illusions and other similar phenomena.

Necker Cube Example
Necker Cube Example | Source

The Necker Cube is a good example. Upon looking at the cube, our brain concludes that what we are seeing could be a cube with a coloured side closest to us and the cube facing toward the right.

Equally, it could be a cube with a coloured side furthest away and the rest of cube coming towards us. Both of these are possible but our brain is unable to decide which one it is actually seeing.

It is claimed this is why the cube seems to switch perspectives from one view to the other as you continue to look at it.

If this is the case, this cannot be due to bottom-up processing as the visual information of the cube has not changed, however the perspective or our perception of the cube changes nevertheless.

Perception is about what we see and what we know

Gaining an Understanding of Perception Theories in Psychology

The constructive theory of perception has been criticised for its inability to explain how, if our perception process is based on past experiences, people from different cultures and lifestyles still perceive the world in a similar way.

The direct theory of perception has been highlighted as being unable to account for visual illusions and areas of perception where prior knowledge is more likely to have had influence, such as some of the examples in the above video.

In conclusion it is likely our visual perception processes are the result of a hybrid of these two theories, using our memories, experiences and knowledge to aid understanding of visual information where required.

Perception within psychology is not something we can measure directly and it is a complex phenomenon. We may never know for sure the answers to these questions. However, as we evolve and learn more about our abilities and as science continues to develop, we are moving closer to a much deeper level of understanding.


Gibson, J. J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Oxford, England: Houghton Mifflin

Gregory, R, L. (1997) Knowledge in Perception and Illusion, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (1997) 352, 1121–1128

Gregory, R. L. (1980) Perceptions as hypotheses. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 290, 181 - 197

Marr, D., & Vision, A. (1982) A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. WH San Francisco: Freeman and Company

© 2014 PsychGeek

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Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 22 months ago from Sydney, Australia

That was an amazing discussion of visual perception!

One thing that fascinates me is how my eyes try to identify patterns in the environment in order to help my cognitive mind understand what is being seen. Much of this is based on prior perceptions of patterns.

Another interest of mine is how infants so early on look to identify faces--that need to identify faces is deeply programmed into the mind.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 22 months ago from UK Author

Hi Dr Billy Kidd, thank you for reading and commenting, I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Certainly the side that really interests me is how visual information is translated in the brain and I do think our prior experiences and memories play a large part in how we understand this input. I think this is why people perceive different things when in the same visual circumstances.

Face recognition is equally fascinating, particularly in young children, there has to be an innate process which has evolved to promote this. I am hoping to complete an article soon based on recognition I think is certainly an area I want to cover!

Dr Billy Kidd profile image

Dr Billy Kidd 22 months ago from Sydney, Australia


Perception Magazine might be of some help to you if you already have not discovered it:

If you local library has interlibrary loans, you can get articles that you find on Google Scholar for free.

Hope to hear more from you.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 22 months ago from UK Author

Wonderful, thank you very much for the tip, I will definitely go and have a look - thanks again Dr Kidd!

alifeofdesign profile image

alifeofdesign 22 months ago from New Hamphire

PsychGeek, that was very interesting - thank you for sharing. I've always enjoyed illusion. I also find face recognition is equally fascinating. I've been in a design field for many years and have often been interested in how different my colleagues "see" things and how "non-designers" interpret design.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 22 months ago from UK Author

Hi alifeofdesign, thank you for reading and commenting, I am glad you found it interesting! I do think face recognition is going to be one of my next projects, it is certainly a fascinating area. I have been quite surprised at the differences in what people can see with illusions and how many people just don't 'see' them at all - I wonder whether more designers see them in general and if this is because they are tuned in to them, as it were, more so than non-designers? Really interesting ideas, thanks again!

mySuccess8 profile image

mySuccess8 21 months ago

Everyday our eyes and brain work together not just to create vision, but visual illusions and perceptions, which you have interestingly explained their complex theories. These theories are initially difficult to understand for most people like me. Visual illusions is also a source of entertainment for many, and one the world’s most famous and successful illusionists I have watched performing and blowing audiences away is the legendary David Copperfield. I have learned so much from this wonderful Hub. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi mySuccess8, thank you for such lovely comments! I am really glad you enjoyed the Hub and felt you learned something from it. My aim with these Hubs is to try to put theories over in an interesting way that is enjoyable to read, so I really do appreciate your comments!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 21 months ago from East Coast, United States

I remember years ago reading a story about forest dwelling people who were taken to a large open grassland. In the distance was a herd of large animals, buffalo or something. They thought the creatures were tiny and were surprised, on approaching the animals, at how large they were. Their perception was based on the fact that they lived in a forested area. They were just not used to seeing things at such a distance. What we see is not always what is. I loved this and checked out the rotating snakes. Amazing how our eyes and brains work! Congrats on HOTD!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Dolores, what a great story! Imagine the shock when they got closer and realised how large the animals actually were. I think what we have seen before is very relevant to our perceptions when we see something new. I suppose our brains are trying to link what we are seeing with prior knowledge in order for the new visual input to make sense to us. It really is a remarkable process. I am glad you also enjoyed the rotating snakes, it was good fun putting that one together. Thank you for reading and leaving such kind comments!

Candle Reviews profile image

Candle Reviews 21 months ago

This is a fascinating hub. I like to learn about these sorts of things, so thank you for sharing it.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Thank you for reading and commenting Candle Reviews, I am glad you enjoyed the Hub!

Dbro profile image

Dbro 21 months ago from Texas, USA

Great article, PsychGeek! As an artist, I deal with trying to "trick" people's perception all the time (trying to portray three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional plane). It's an interesting question where our visual perception originates. I would think that a person's age would have a lot to do with whether they are "bottom up" or "top down" Since young children lack experience and memories, I would assume they rely more on the bottom up approach. Older people (I would think) would be more likely to use their experience and memory to fill in the gaps in what their visual perception is telling them.

Thanks again for a fascinating article!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Dbro, now this is something I find fascinating, how an artist can make a 2D image appear 3D. I have always been amazed what can be created on a blank page with just a pencil and how this work can be brought to life. I also wonder whether this idea of older people having more prior knowledge, while of course useful, may also contribute to more mistakes being made as there is more information to be sorted through held in memory? Thank you for reading and leaving such interesting comments!

MsDora profile image

MsDora 21 months ago from The Caribbean

Congratulations of your well-deserved Hub of The Day accolade! This article on visual perception is very interesting. Thanks for your explanations in the text and video. Voted Up!

Harishprasad profile image

Harishprasad 21 months ago from India

PsychGeek, congrats on getting HOTD tag to this wonderful hub. You have presented a very informative hub about this interesting topic : perception. Though a scientific subject, you have written it in a very interesting way. The overall effect of the read is that this hub still wanders in my mind. Thank you for this.

heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 21 months ago from Chicago Area

Vision truly is one of our most treasured senses. Excellent review of the vision process. So worthy of Hub of the Day. Congrats!

MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 21 months ago from Northern California, USA

This is really fascinating to read. It is thorough and very well-written. Congratulations on receiving the Hub of the Day award. You deserve it.

izettl profile image

izettl 21 months ago from The Great Northwest

I have a Psych degree so I was informed about this already. It was done well though and great for people who don't know these kind of details. So for someone who knows this already, I would've wished for something a little bit less like one of my Psych papers or textbooks.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi MsDora, thank you for such kind words and I am really glad you enjoyed the Hub!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Thank you for reading and commenting heidithorne and I couldn't agree more, our vision is so valuable to us!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi MarleneB, thank you for your lovely comments, I am delighted you found it interesting!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Harishprasad, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I had hoped this Hub would be interesting to people and if it has left some thoughts and pondering I am even more delighted!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi izettl, thank you for reading and leaving such kind comments, particularly as you are already familiar with the topic. I am pleased you liked the article even if it did remind you of your textbooks!

DaveSumner LM profile image

DaveSumner LM 21 months ago from United States

Very well done hub! My MSc dissertation was on risk perception. I got all wrapped up in how people think about risk and "see" it - or not - mentally. It's funny that I never thought about how visual perception has to come first, before the mind can even decide whether or not to perceive something mentally. Your hub expanded the way I think about these things now. I started to say it expanded the way I "see" these things now, but never manage to be funny except for when I am not trying to be!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi DaveSumner, I am pleased the Hub has been useful to you and thank you for such great comments! That is a good point, I suppose in order to assess risk we would need to process the visual information first to give us the parameters of the situation, which we can then utilise within any risk perception. Other than fight or flight I have not really thought about risk perception and how we "see" or calculate this, that is really quite interesting, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Fred Arnold profile image

Fred Arnold 21 months ago from Clearwater, FL

Talking psychology has become a consistent adventure with my sister, who is currently pursuing her masters in the field. We had a very similar conversation the other day about the stuff present in this Hub, and I can't quite shake the coincidence of it!

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 21 months ago from the short journey

Very interesting read. There is so much more to "us" than we even now realize.

As science peels back the layers of our design to explore function it is exciting to think of what may be in the future.

Oh, back to say what I first intended--congrats on your Hub of the Day!

whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 21 months ago from United States

Nicely done my friend. I have always been intrigued as to why the human eye perceives objects upside down and our brains right the images. Visual perception, accompanied by the senses of hearing and touch, are amazing and we are so gifted in this life when all functions appropriately. Thanks for sharing. whonu

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 21 months ago from Houston, TX USA

Interesting article. Two quick points:

1. Much of what we perceive is actually a projection of what we wish to believe. Projection = Perception.

2. There is such a thing as second sight or ESP. See Edgar Cayce and his medical readings. There is more to the world than the material.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Fred, thank you for reading and commenting. That is a coincidence! I hope the Hub has been useful for you for those discussions.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

RTalloni & whonu - thank you both for taking the time to read and leaving such nice comments. I am really pleased you found the article interesting.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Jay, thank you for your useful comments! That is very true perception is very much influenced by what we believe and I suppose this is why different people can perceive entirely different things when in the same circumstances. ESP is certainly interesting and not an area I know much about, but I am keen to read up, thank you for your points!

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 21 months ago from Houston, TX USA

Please let me know what you think of Edgar Cayce.

Allison Loker profile image

Allison Loker 21 months ago from Brooklyn

This is such a fascinating discussion about something readily taken for granted. How often do we consider everything that goes into eyesight and perception? Well, after reading this hub, I'm considering it a little more. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Jay, I certainly will do, from what I have read so far I am intrigued!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Thank you Allison for reading and commenting. I do agree, we take our abilities as given and often give little thought to how remarkable they actually are!

deborahmorrison1 profile image

deborahmorrison1 21 months ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Most interesting psychological perspective on visual perception. I like this hub because it is well written, organized, clear, and provides lots of relevant information.

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Thank you Deborah, I really appreciate your comments and I am glad you enjoyed the Hub!

Ethan Digby-New 21 months ago

PsychGeek, this is one of the most interesting Hubs I've read. Especially the part about Marr's theory and our overall perception of reality. I tend to lean more towards the theories that the M-Theory presents, along with a bit of Shrodingers cat to help explain the gaps in reality. This was an absolutely great hub! I also liked the one about the factual theory of optical illusions. Nice!

PsychGeek profile image

PsychGeek 21 months ago from UK Author

Hi Ethan, thank you for your kind comments. How we view our world and translate what we see into meaning does fascinate me. We take these skills so much for granted when they really are quite amazing!

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