VI. Perception

There is some argument over the precise definition of perception. Some claim that we "perceive" everything of which our senses are aware - that is, anything within our field of vision, whose light waves strike the retina, is by this definition perceived. Atkins disagrees with this definition, suggesting that of all the sensory stimulation we receive at any given moment, only a few are observed by the mind - and it is observation by the mind, rather than reception by the sense organs, that qualifies something as having been perceived.

(EN: This definition remains in debate even in the present day, and there is no satisfactory resolution - and there does seem to be a lot of looseness in the terminology, but Atkison's notion of perception matches some current theories, even though they may use a different term such as "awareness" to describe it.)

To better distinguish the concepts, the author offers the following hierarchy:

He also mashes together with perception a separate process of identification, suggesting that it is the perceptive process that causes us to identify things. Sensation causes us to notice a round area of red color against a larger area of green color, but perception enables us to recognize it as being a berry in a bush. (EN: Per the note above, this is a separate process of identification, whether by comparison to memory or to abstract characteristics, which allows us to name a thing we perceive.)

In the task of identification, we compare sensations to memories - if a sensation matches the pattern for something stored in memory, we perceive it as being a known object, at which point perception combines the data we receive from senses to those in memory.

For example, our sense of sight passes along an image of all we see. Within the sum of what is seen, there are colors and shapes that taken together form the image of a horse. Our mind identifies it as a horse, and calls to mind what we know about horses to create an idea about what we are presently seeing.

Experience teaches us to recognize many things. Our most primitive memories define broad categories - if we have never seen a horse before, we are at least aware that it exists as an object, a single entity to be considered as such. It is much in the same way that someone who does not know how to read will recognize individual letters, but once they have learned to read they recognize words (and more, that the sight of a printed word on paper calls to mind our knowledge about the concept it represents).

In this manner, all knowledge begins with sensation. At first we are unable to separate the components of sensation, and see an entire scene as a tableau of shapes and colors, hear all noises as their combined cacophony, and are unable to make sense of them. The first step in knowledge is in perceiving these scenes as their individual components, and grouping components into sets. It is perception that tells us that certain shapes, sounds, movements, and scents are being experienced because we are in the presence of a horse.

It then follows that the greater a person's knowledge, the more honed their perception. They are better able to separate components of sensation to recognize more things in their sensory environment, to fill in missing details (to smell something without seeing it), and to have more granular knowledge of what they are seeing (the breed of horse, how it may be expected to behave, etc.).

It should also be obvious that perception is the point at which the raw sensory data of the outside world and the data stored in memory are combined to create a notion of the reality we experience. It is on this point that minds diverge - while everyone senses the same thing, they perceive it differently: one person tastes a pie and declares it is made of apples, another declares it is made of pears pears. They both receive the same sense data when they taste it, but perceive it differently.

And finally, sensation and perception are two separate mental processes - one of which receives data and the other interprets it. We are able to sense things but fail to perceive them, and because perception is based on knowledge we may perceive things we do not sense.

(EN: This may require a return to the previous topic of "extrasensory perception" - because we do in fact perceive things that are based on partial sense data and knowledge fills in missing details, which are not in the perception of others, and which may seem magical or supernatural to them. These are the things you "just know" without being able to articulate the way in which you know them - such as a mechanic who can tell from the sound of an engine what is wrong with it.)

Developing Perception

Homing the powers of perception is of the utmost importance, as our intelligence and knowledge enable us to understand the things that are received by our sensory faculties. What distinguishes a man from his peers is not that he senses more, but that he better understand that which he senses.

We regard as stupid the men who bumble through life, failing to perceive even the most obvious facts, whose actions are guided by a limited understanding of the world around them. To fail to understand these basic things causes us to fail in more significant ways: we cannot seize upon opportunities that we do not perceive to exist.

Knowledge and perception are symbiotic. We perceive more because we know more - because the knowledge we have in store makes us better able to interpret those things we receive through our senses. At the same time knowledge is only gained through perception - we must perceive something in the first place to form the memories to which future sensations will later be compared.

Perception is all the more important in a complicated world, where so much is inflicted upon our senses at any given moment, and because we become inured to many things - having dismissed them as irrelevant in a given moment, we tend to dismiss them altogether.

The first step to improving perception is simply to take notice of things - to keep the "eyes of the mind" wide open and pay attention to those things that are so often ignored. Simply by doing so, we begin to take notice of many things. Consider the way in which a foreign visitor notices many things that domestic residents fail to notice every day, or a child who has never visited a city notices far more than the child who has lived there for all of his life. There is so much to be perceived, even in already familiar environments.

The second step to improving perception is to seek knowledge of things: to understand what they are, what they do, how they behave. Much of this can be gained from reading, but book-knowledge is a record of the perception of another person, which in itself may be limited by selective attention. There is no substitute for seeing things in the real world and assessing them for oneself - but one's self must be informed in order to know what to concentrate upon. So the two are not enemies, but allies with different strengths.

As an aside, we are inclined to pay more attention to the things that interest us. Strolling through a crowd, a jeweler will notice every piece of jewelry that is worn by the people who pass by him - these details naturally come to his perception, but are missed by anyone who has no particular interest in the subject.

He suggests the exercise of glancing at a photograph and then writing down everything we notice about it, then glancing at it a gain to find additional details. It may be done both to recognize more items in a scene or to pay more intensive attention to the qualities of a single object. This is a mental exercise that will form a habit of improved perception.

He refers obliquely to the children's game of "I spy" in which each attempt to notice things that others miss in their environment - and this is quite a good exercise for developing perception, as the game-like nature and the spirit of competition encourage them to attempt to surpass one another by more finely tuning their perception.