Learning to See the Unseen

July 13, 2011


In 1979, the American psychologist J.J. Gibson published the book, “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”, in which he argued that, “knowing is an extension of perceiving” and that perceiving, “goes far beyond the sensory act of seeing”. In seeking to understand the question, “what is visual perception?”, Gibson came to the radical conclusion that perception is not about what is seen, but rather, that which is unseen, i.e., our ability to infer the reality of objects that are hidden or occluded from our direct field of view.

This has profound implications for the question I posed at the end of my last post, “what are the nature of the threats we face in the 21st century” and “how can we learn to re-perceive them in order to more effectively interact with them?”

Gibson was the first to argue that the our ability to infer the structure of reality based on partial and hidden data was the key to visual perception. Why is this so important? Because the reason that we are able to do this is because we are mobile; our mobility allows us to engage with and explore our environment and, in doing so, build representations of reality that go beyond our ability to see them or not. “Perceiving is a psychosomatic act, not of the mind or of the body but of a living observer.” Perception, in short, was a function of mobility and inference, not the direct processing of sensory information.

In my last post I used the example of “focal” and “peripheral” vision to suggest that the threats we face are diffuse, shifting and peripheral. I suggested that we therefore require new ways of seeing in order to better understand and engage with the threats we face. Gibson’s assertion, and its implications, are key to understanding how this may occur.

“The environment seen-at-this-moment does not constitute the environment that is seen. Neither does the environment seen-from-this-point constitute the environment that is seen,” he writes. Because our perception is fundamentally shaped by our perspective – vis-a-vis our ability to move around and perceive different slices of the “world that is” – our awareness of the world is fundamentally inseparable from our range of movement and freedom of imagination to infer “that which cannot be seen”. Knowing, therefore, is an extension of perceiving, and perceiving is an extension of embodied interaction.

Gibson goes on to assert a range of important points – that there really is no different between the perceiver and the environment, that our entire body (and indeed the entire environment) is basically one large perceptual field, and that our attitudes, expectations and beliefs are as fundamental to existing in this perceptual field as are our eyes and the world itself.

But the point that is the most relevant for our question, “how can we re-perceive in order to better understand the threats we face” is that the only way to translate the sensory input of these diffuse signals into acute perception of them is through movement, i.e., interaction. And what “movement” means in the 21st Century networked environment is fundamentally different from what it meant in the jungle or the savannah.

This is the premise of movies like The Predator, in which the heroes must learn to see the monster before they learn how to defeat it. We often cannot “see” that which is right under our nose until after it is pointed out to us. Gibson taught us that vision was fundamentally a function of embodied movement, and that perception is a process of making sense of this experience. Without movement – without seeing all angles of the problem – we cannot perceive that which is unseen and, by implication, we cannot hope to successfully interact with it.

In my next post, I will explore what it means to “move” in the 21st Century perceptual field and what this implies for sensing, monitor, and responding to the threats and opportunities that are unseen, and yet right beneath our noses.

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