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Living entities perceive environments by interacting with them. There is no perception without organism-environmental engagement. Consequently, the basic unit of analysis in the study of perception is always the organism plus its surroundings. For many centuries, especially under the influence of Cartesian premises, people in Western societies believed that perception was the result of the brain’s processing of raw, concrete, and objective information about the external world that was delivered directly through sensory organs and the nervous system. In the 20th century many studies showed that what reaches the brain is actually information that has already been partly processed by sensory apparatuses and nervous systems. An example of this phenomenon is what happens when the human eye is exposed to images that play with the ambiguity of people’s perception. These are images in which, depending on what an eye “chooses” to focus on, a person will either see a young woman or an old lady. Another example are images where the eye can alternate between seeing a vase or the lateral view of two human faces in front of one another.
Whereas in previous centuries philosophers and neurologists believed that the mind was exclusively in the brain, many scholars currently conceptualize the mind as operating within the connections that exist between sensory organs, the things that are being sensed, the nervous system, and the brain. They contend that the mind is immanent in these pathways. Scholars argue that through perception, organisms “bring forth” certain aspects of the world while other aspects are ignored and, therefore, remain unknown. Following this theory one can say for instance, that when interacting with their environments, dogs bring forth a world that is heavily imbued with smells. Humans tend to be more attuned to bringing forth visual aspects of the world and, even then, only in terms of what the human eye is capable of detecting.
Bateson and Sensory Perception
One of the scientists who most contributed to a more complex understanding of perception was Gregory Bateson. Bateson was unsatisfied with the notion that the brain directly receives concrete information about the world, which it subsequently interprets. This would be too simple a process for highly complex organisms. He suggested instead that perception emerges from relations that organisms establish with their world, as well as from relations among sensory organs, nervous systems, and the brain. Bateson was also suspicious of the notion that perception is based on the passive transmission of discrete bits of information from the senses, through the nervous system, and on to the brain. Bateson’s point is that perception is not initiated by the arrival of mirror-like images of the world in the brain. Rather, perception is directly associated to the arrival of news of difference and that news of difference is not possible unless the organism interacts with its surrounding environment. These differences are not first detected by the brain, which means that there is some processing of information at the sensory level.
Visual percepts provide an illustration of this idea. Bateson proposed that perception begins with eyes detecting a difference between the white of the page and the black of the text’s fonts. The fact that you are reading this text illustrates this argument. When a person reads a text that is typed on a page, the person engages with the text by using his or her eyes in a context where the necessary conditions for such engagement exist (for example, there needs to be enough light in the room for the person to be able to read). Distinguishing between the black text and the white page is a form of information processing that starts in the eye. If there is no significant difference at all between the two, the eye cannot see the text, and the person cannot perceive that she or he is looking at a text.
The same goes for the perception of temperature. Noticing whether a surface is or is not cold entails using the skin’s sensory capabilities to compare that surface with others that are hotter or colder-even if it means comparing that with sensory memories of other surfaces and their temperatures. A person who puts his or her hands in lukewarm water after being exposed to extremely low temperatures will sense that water as if it were very hot. Alternatively, if a person is exposed to a smell that stays relatively constant-that is, without oscillations in its intensity-will eventually decrease levels of smell-perception or even stop him or her from smelling it altogether. The assertion that perception is a multilevel system is so fundamentally correct that neurologists have discovered that without sensory engagement with environments, the human mind cannot function properly. Sensory deprivation is-at least for humans-a highly cruel form of torture.
Perception and Social Relations
Social scientists working on the basis of these premises add to this knowledge by explaining the role that culture and social relations play in the mediation of perception. Rather than contradicting the findings mentioned above, they complement them and take them even further. A case in point is the work of the anthropologist David Howes. He has done extensive research on the relations that exist between sensory perception and sociocultural contexts. First, Howes shows that there is a distinction to be made between sensory capabilities and their use. This implies that there is no universal natural sensory state. Instead, sensory potential is exercised differently depending on a person’s social background. Each society specifies the appropriate uses for people’s senses. For example, in North America it is generally considered rude to sniff a person’s smell.
Second, Howes shows that the notion of “sense” is to a great extent cultural. In Western societies people normally talk of five senses, but there are other societies where people refer to the existence of many more senses. There are societies where people are encouraged to use additional senses, including some that allow them to make statements about another person’s soul.
Third, Howes’s research shows that contrary to dominant assumptions that each sense operates individually, sensory perception actually emerges out of the interaction of various senses. The end result is that perception is more than the sum of the bits of information that are provided by each sense alone. This means that sensory perception is synergistic. Howes’s major argument is that any discussion of human environmental perception must begin with an account of the realm of the sensuous in active interaction with surroundings. This in turn must be understood in the context of social practices that lead to particular types of habitual, embodied sensory practices.
Tim Ingold, another anthropologist, has studied the ways in which human beings, who are endowed with sensory capabilities and who are influenced by culture, perceive the environments they live in. Ingold argues that notwithstanding people who have disabilities, all contemporary humans are endowed with similar perceptual capabilities. However, the extent to which people actually exercise these abilities is related to the perceptual habits they develop through life as well as to the extent to which the person learns to be aware of his or her perceptual practices.
This means that on the one hand, people become accustomed to using some of their perceptual capabilities more often-and better-than they use other capabilities. The possibility is there at birth that people use all of their sensory potential but, as they grow up, they become accustomed to relying mainly on specific combinations. For example, there are societies in which most people develop the habit of using mainly their eyes in order to engage with the world, to the point where information about the world is not real to them unless it can be visually verified.
In Western societies, a person’s mood is often determined by looking at the person’s face and seeing whether she or he looks happy. This is often taken as more informative than listening to what the person has to say about his or her emotional state. In fact, expressions like “she says she’s happy but I can see she is not” are illustrative of how Westerners privilege the visual over the auditory.
On the other hand, as people go through their lives, they become aware of the ways in which they perceptually engage with their surroundings. This allows them to fine-tune their perceptual capabilities. The typical bird-watching beginner is not capable of noticing differences between the sounds of distinct bird species, nor is she or he capable of detecting the physical and behavioral nuances that separate various subspecies from one another. In fact, many beginners are not even capable of seeing birds when they walk through the woods. In time, however, beginners learn how to become aware of more aspects of their surroundings.
Learning and Cultural Transmission
People develop this awareness by learning to discover different levels of perceptual engagement with environments. According to Ingold, and very much along the lines of what Bateson had proposed before him, this information entails more than having images of the world copied into a person’s head. It also means that in this process of learning it is insufficient to receive instructions from someone else on how to perceive. This is a process that normally falls under the label enculturation, whereby a person is informed of the knowledge and ways of living that characterize his or her society. The person must instead be actively involved in engaging with his/her surroundings and, in so doing, discover how to use his or her perceptual potential. Ingold shows that the latter is a process of enskillment. It contrasts with enculturation in that while enculturation occurs by means of information transmission from one person or society to another, it is instead achieved by learning to pay attention to environmental cues. The latter is what Ingold calls a dwelling perspective. It is based on the notion that acting and perceiving are inextricably connected.
A bird-watching beginner, for example, may receive instructions from a teacher on how to proceed toward having a better chance to see birds on trees, or information about how the sounds of different species might best be recognized. Their instructions are helpful, but not enough to render a novice bird-watcher a proficient bird-spotter. Instead, the novice must acquire corresponding perceptual skills in order to see, listen to, distinguish, and appreciate birds.
Ingold’s work goes even further by explaining how these processes occur, and what are the related roles that culture and social context play. Ingold considers two main contrasting forms of cultural understanding of perception, identifying two distinct epistemologies or general theories concerning the validity, scope, and anatomy of human-knowledge processes-including perception. First, there is the orthodox Western understanding of perception. As mentioned above, it is based on Cartesian premises.
Cartesian premises assume that there are clearly demarcated boundaries between the external world, a body’s perceptual apparatus, and a central information-processing unit-the brain. It is typical of Cartesian thinking to believe that the senses play a minor role in relation to the brain’s mental processes. At best Cartesians see the senses as mere vehicles that passively transport direct information from the outside world. For them it is the brain and the brain alone that displays properties of mind: that is, the capability to know the world. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense for Cartesians to argue that human knowledge can be effectively and successively transmitted abstractly in the form of verbal and written information.
To some extent this proposition is indeed true. A good portion of the average Westerner’s knowledge is acquired this way. However, humans would hardly be able to cope with living in the world if this were the only way they knew the world. As anyone who ever had problems learning mathematics or abstract philosophy knows, it can be extremely difficult for humans to learn things that they cannot relate to the worlds they are engaged with. In turn, most of the practical knowledge that humans require in order to deal with the demands of their daily lives is embodied knowledge, not abstract and conceptual. One could spend hours describing to someone else all the theory that comes with bicycle riding, but the prospective rider would still fall many times before learning balance.
Ingold contrasts this epistemology that dominates the Western world with the epistemologies of many cultural examples from societies that exist around the world. His work shows that hunter-gatherers, for example, differ from most Westerners in that they understand perception as emerging from the simultaneous conceptual and bodily engagement with the world. They do not operate on the basis that the world is an external reality that passively waits to be known. Following a dwelling perspective in the terms described above, hunter-gatherers conceptualize knowledge as the combined result of thinking and acting within environments. For them, the two cannot be separated; mind and environment are two connected processes.
The process of hunting illustrates this point. In many non-Western societies, such as the Cree of northern Canada, knowledge of how to hunt always entails a reciprocal interaction between hunter and prey. Certain aspects of this knowledge must be passed conceptually from one person or society to another, but the actual hunting encounter will fail for the hunter unless he or she is attuned to the animal’s responses and responds accordingly. Certain actions by the hunter will lead to certain responses by the animal. These, however, depend on the environmental context wherein hunting takes place. For instance, animals will respond differently depending on whether they are in the proximity of their herd, or depending on whether it is windy or not. Consequently the hunter must learn to align his or her perceptual apparatuses such that they can be adjusted to oscillating conditions during the hunting event as well as to the animal’s responses to both the environment and the presence of a human being. Perceptual knowledge is thus “spread around knowledge” in that it resides in the interactions that take place among the hunter, the prey, and the environment. Clearly, this epistemology contrasts with Cartesian premises that knowledge is fixed in the brain as a set of concepts about an external world.
In short, environmental perception is a complex biological process that entails the active interaction of sensory organs, nervous systems, and the brain. This, however, is only a fraction of the process. A person’s biological perceptual systems give him or her the potential to know the world. This potential is not exercised until the person actively engages with the environment. In this process of engagement certain aspects of this potential will be used, while others will not. In so doing people bring forth some features of the environment, while others remain unknown. To a great extent this is the result of culturally acquired sensory habits whereby humans learn to use some senses more than others. In addition, sensory perception tends to be synergistic-different senses cooperate and interact such that perception emerges as a combined product of individual sensory capabilities.
Finally, environmental perception is influenced by social and cultural context. Some societies and cultures operate on the basis of an epistemology that encourages members to be particularly attuned to feedback information from the environment while others do not. Recent scientific studies from neurology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology show that, regardless of epistemological belief, the fact remains that perception is not possible without environmental engagement.
- Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000 );
- Frijof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Anchor Books, 1996);
- Peter Harries-Jones, A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson (Toronto University Press, 1995);
- David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (University of Michigan Press, 2003);
- Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill (Routledge, 2000);
- Uriah Kriegel and Kenneth Williford, Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness (MIT Press, 2006);
- Katja Neves-Graca, “Investigating Ecology: Cognition in Human-Environmental Relationships,” in P. Meusburger and T. Schwan, , Humanokologie: Ansdtze zur Oberwindung der NaturKultur-Dichotomie [Human ecology: toward overcoming the nature-culture dichotomy] (Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, Erdkundliches Wissen, vol. 135, 2003).