Cognitive Perspective of Learning & Information Processing

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  • 1:07 Sensation
  • 2:08 Perception
  • 4:37 Gestalt Principles of…
  • 9:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

When you see or hear something in your environment, how does your brain recognize what you are seeing or hearing? This lesson introduces the cognitive perspective in psychology, including the difference between sensation and perception. We'll also discuss the famous Gestalt principles of perception that you do automatically every day but didn't necessarily know there were names for what your brain was doing.


Look at this image of a famous optical illusion. What do you see here? Can you simultaneously see two things at once? If we take the visual image away, can you re-create it in your mind?

How your mind responds when a stimulus is presented in your environment is complicated, but at the same time, these complicated responses are often automatic. The cognitive perspective in psychology is an area of the field that studies how people acquire, perceive, remember and communicate information. It includes how we respond to images we see or sounds we hear, how our minds change these stimuli into meaningful ideas and how we remember these ideas later. Several lessons will discuss the ideas of the cognitive perspective in psychology. This lesson is an introduction to the foundation of the cognitive perspective, which is sensation and perception.


Our five senses are vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell
Five Senses

We all have five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. All five senses work because something in the environment sets off a sensory neuron in our bodies, and those neurons send a signal to the brain. So, sensation is the process of an environmental stimulus starting the chain of events from one of our five senses to our brain in order to be recognized.

Let's think about touch as an example. When something touches any part of your skin that signal sets off the end of a sensory neuron, which is a cell in your skin. The end of the cell moves slightly, which sets off an entire series of electrical and chemical signals that go all the way to your brain. All of our five senses work in basically the same way. But in the process of sensation, those signals haven't been transformed yet into recognizable ideas. That's where the next step in the process begins.


After an electrical and chemical signal has gone all the way from a sensory neuron to the brain, perception occurs. Perception is when your brain transforms sensory experiences into meaningful ideas that can be processed and understood.

For example, when something touches your skin, the process of sensation sends a signal to your brain, but perception is when you realize what just happened. What is it that touched you? Was it something gentle, like a feather? Was it something hot, burning you? What part of your body was touched? Another example of perception is with vision. On the sensation level, all that happens is that the rods and cones inside your eyeball process light and color. But on the perception level, your brain recognizes images, such as what your mother looks like compared to your cat or when you look inside your fridge to decide what to eat. Perception is when your mind decides what just happened to you, and what it means.

The sensation and perception processes occur so quickly and automatically that we don't need to consciously think about them or even realize that they're happening. When your mind does something so often that it occurs without your conscious thought process, it's called automaticity. We have automaticity for certain well-practiced motions, like how to walk or even how to drive after years of practice. We also have automaticity for sensation and perception. However, this automaticity can lead to certain interesting mistakes, as well.

When viewing this optical illusion, you could perceive the image in different ways
Optical Illusion

For example, look again at this optical illusion. At first glance, your perception of it might be that you interpret it in one way. However, when you look at it more closely, you can realize that there's another way to see the same image. In the early 1900s, a group of psychologists decided to identify some basic ways that our minds automatically process stimuli. Typically, these tendencies help us understand the world, but sometimes they lead to interesting illusions. These psychologists are called Gestalt psychologists, and they identified several rules or principles of perception organization. The word Gestalt can be translated as essence, or sometimes people refer to the Gestalt idea using the phrase, 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.' The rules identified by the Gestalt psychologists are usually called the Gestalt principles of organization. Let's go over some of these rules.

Gestalt Principles of Organization

Probably the most famous of the Gestalt principles or rules is one called figure/ground. Figure/ground refers to the automatic tendency we have when we see an image of trying to pick out the most important figure in the visual field and filter everything else into the background. Typically, this is relatively easy, such as when looking at paintings of flowers or fruit. We can see that the figure, or central image, of the painting is the fruit, while everything else, like the table or room behind it, is the background. However, the figure/ground principle is what causes certain famous optical illusions as well. Remember the famous image seen here? It's a perfect example of this principle because you can't tell if the figure is supposed to be the two faces looking at each other or if the figure is the vase or the candlestick in the middle. Which is the figure and which is the ground or background? The automaticity of vision and the figure/ground principle are what make this optical illusion interesting to us.

Another Gestalt principle is called similarity, and that's when we automatically group images that are similar with each other. Look at this image. What do you see? If you're like most people, you'll group the circles of one color all together and group the circles of the other color all together. So, here, you see certain shapes, like a square form. This particular example is actually what eye doctors use to test whether people are color blind. If you can't differentiate the shape in this image from the rest of the image, then you aren't able to tell the difference between the two colors of the image. The similarity principle helps us in our daily lives by making our brains very efficient in sorting through all of the individual aspects of our visual field.

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