What is Perception?

Perception and attention are two themes that go hand-in-hand in psychology. After we've narrowed our focus and a stimulus has gained our attention, we are then able to perceive and process that stimulus. This is the manner in which our brains and our senses are able to interpret the the world around us. Perception is the brain's process of organizing the information we receive for our senses. The process of perception works to determine our every day experiences of the world and to then in-turn determine our reactions to those very same experiences (Goldstein, 2010). As human being we are aware of the perception process, but we sometimes underestimate the simplicity of this actually very complex act (Goldstein, 2010).

History of Perception

Throughout our existence, humans have sought to understand and explain nature and behavior. Greek philosophers were amongst the first to inquire over the meaning of our existence and the extent of our knowledge (Masin, 1993). They questioned if the world we perceive is actually the world we live in or if an independent reality exists outside of our perception (Sekuler & Blake, 1994). This branch of philosophy eventually broke away and formed the scientific study of psychology (Sekular & Blake, 1994). In the general study of psychology, different schools of theory have dominated the central theme of this science and with them comes different interpretations of the same phenomenon. In this section we discuss how different schools of psychology prioritized and explained perception.
  • Classical Theory

    • In the mid-nineteenth century, German scientist like Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Fechner began pioneering systematic studies in an effort to prove that mental processes such as perception and sensation could be studies scientifically (Masin, 1993).
  • Structuralism

    • In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt established the first laboratory at the University of Leipzig, and in this laboratory setting he established a new structure of though called structuralism where he separated thoughts into simpler processes (Masin, 1993). These processes included perception, sensation, and emotion.
  • Functionalism

    • Around the same time Structuralism was being formed in Europe, a new school of psychology was beginning to form in the United States. A physician by the name of William James proposed a thought process different to functionalism. He proposed that thoughts flowed continuously, and unlike the central theme of structuralism, could bot be broken down into smaller elements without losing sightof the comprehensive whole (Masin, 1993). For example, when we look at an orange, we see the orange, not the individual properties that make it an orange. The emphasis of Functionalism is on understanding how the mind operates and how it assists us in adapting to our environment, and not necessarily on the actual structure of the mind.
  • Behaviorism

    • In 1913, American psychologist John B. Watson argued that only observable and measurable behavior should be the focus of psychology. He argued that trying to understand and experiment on mental properties and processes would onlyprove ineffective because of the difficulty in actually locating and reliably measuring mental processes (Masin, 1993). Watson believed that behavior is best explained as responses to environmental stimuli, and behaviorism in essence focuses on the environment and how it shapes human behavior.
  • Gestalt Psychology

    • Around the same time Behaviorism was forming in America, Gestalt Psychology was setting its roots in Germany. Here, scientists like Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler agreed with Functionalist William James in the assessment that perception and thought could not be broken down into smaller elements without disturbing the entire whole (Masin, 1993). The central point of Gestalt theory is that the sum is always greater than the parts that make it.