An Overview of the Active Perception Theory

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2010 17 Pages

Psychology - Cognition


Table of Contents

Support from Other Disciplines
The Basic Tenets

The Perception by Defaults

Recognition vs. Cognition
Free Will
The Scales of the Lady Justice

Non-monotonic Logic

Kolmogorov’s Complexity

The Triangle of Perception
The Genetics' Corner
The Culture's Corner
And Our Own Corner

Early Development

Social Aspects
What Could Go Wrong




Historically, perception was considered in terms established by René Descartes: perception → thoughts that lead to a decision (brain) and → action. Closely following Descartes’ thought was a period of automatons, like The Duck.[1] But more importantly this was the period of punched tapes used to automate textile looms, for example. And from there, there was just a small step left towards our modern computers, based upon the principle: input → processing → output.[2]

This picture has been entirely eroded in the second half of the last century that was crowned by seminal works of Richard L. Gregory, Benjamin Libet, Nancy Kanwisher and numerous other cognitive psychologists and neurologists. Aided by mostly non-intrusive equipment (EEG, fMRI etc.), they started to map subjective experiences with records of their physical manifestations. The accumulated finds lead to an inevitable conclusion that we are much more active (or subjective) in what and how we see than we suspected. Consequently, the previous theory of perception received “passive” as an attribute (PP) and the new, now widely accepted theory, received “active” as an attribute. The rest of this article is, therefore, based upon the Active Perception Theory (PA). Other contemporary theories of perception are rather functional aspects of the Active Perception Theory.

Support from Other Disciplines

Finds by cognitive psychologists received complementary support from genetics, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines. Kolmogorov’s math and non-monotonic logic also provided a powerful, formal description of our, mostly intuitive, knowledge management. But the most surprising support came from the theory about Complex Adaptive Systems (an Artificial Intelligence discipline); especially neural networks. The processes in both bear remarkable similarity and many are now peeking through a keyhole on the door between them. This might well be the time to open this door...

The Basic Tenets

The Active Perception (PA) changes Descartes’ picture into dynamic interplay between the environment ↔ our perception of it ↔ and our description of it (brain). The theory was originally conceived by correspondence between William Molyneux and John Locke about blind man suddenly made see – on how would a previously blind person interpret visual sensations? Unfortunately, a blind suddenly made see would be a miracle in their time... However, such cases were made possible in the previous century and Richard L. Gregory was lucky enough to follow up on the real life example of an older blind person suddenly made see.[3] Remarkably, his observations echoed very much their conclusions...

In short, PA theory states that we establish a set of more or less vague expectations (default percepts) and related intents for deliberate actions. The mixture of these is raised for what we are about to experience in the next few moments of our lives. These sets are based upon a mental map or description of the place (situation) we are about to be in... And then we start a kind of virtual reality simulation just before the real stuff... As expectations of one moment are confirmed or corrected, the expectations for the following moments grow more specific[4] until their time comes to be quickly confirmed or corrected. And this is much faster than building up the whole picture from the scratch every moment of our life...

Such simulations could be performed well in advance. And with a small ingredient - freedom, they are a solid launching pad for flights of imagination, art, thinking, planning... But, although fast, such simulations are prone to failures. If we do not expect to see a friend, for example, in a busy shopping mall, we may fail to see her waiving and yelling our name. Only later we may learn about our perceptual failure...


To psychologists, consciousness is like a spotlight cast at very few symbols in the dark sea of non-consciousness.[5] It is not only timed by Dr Benjamin Libet.[6] Its capacity is also well measured with only seven symbols[7] /[8] /[9] in the spotlight at the time...

It should be noted, though, that philosophers use term consciousness for another phenomenon that is here referred to as phenomenal consciousness or the hard problem of consciousness. While the consciousness (psychologists talk about) can be derived from phenomenal consciousness, we cannot draw any conclusion about phenomenal consciousness from findings psychologists made...


In each moment, seven of the most important sensations to us, are translated into symbols within our consciousness with emotional charges behind. The most of other sensations could be recorded non-consciously, but rather as related impressions translated in the emotional charges.

These emotionally charged symbols are stored into the short-term memory, as fresh memories, with good chances to be retained in the long-term memory.

The highly emotionally charged memories are constantly revisited in the context of other (long-term) memories of ours. And we even dream about these fresh memories.

This, constant repetition and verification of our fresh memories, turns them into long-time memories with the weight of repetitions behind them – habit or perceptual defaults. It’s very like the constant, internal repetition of the phone number of a nice girl we just met...

It should also be noted that all of our emotions are reflected in the physiological stati of our organism. Such changes are quickly propagated to every single cell of ours and reflected[10] in the epigenome within them. Ultimately, these changes in our epigenome are passed to our offspring to benefit from our experiences...

The Perception by Defaults

The perception by defaults applies in well-known environments; in a well-known shopping mall, for example. Such perception relies on quite specific expectations for the static layout of shops, windows, elevators, stairs etc. There are also vague expectations of men, women, kids interwoven with vague expectations for tall, short, slender, good looking, fat etc. Lists of other vague expectations that might be important to us are also available for our mental simulations...[11]

Default percepts are rather tagged outlines of what we are about to see. Few details for this outlines we can add, on the run, as features of a good looking woman are drawn to our eyes, for example. Otherwise, we simply do not bother and swiftly navigate through the crowd letting our attention to be grabbed every now and then by a window, another good looking woman...

However, our navigation through the crowd would be severely impaired if there were no default actions associated with our default percepts allowing for swift avoidance of collisions.[12]

Our default percepts do not only help us to navigate through our physical environment. As a launching pad they are a base for our default (habitual) thoughts, feelings and actions. We imagine an important situation we are about to be in. We think about what we will see, feel, think, say, do or not do – to get the best possible outcome from it. Depending on the depth of our experiences in some kinds of situations, we are apprentices, adepts or masters who artfully apply their expertise.

Practically all of our skills are based upon refined default percepts and actions in the profession of our choosing. In a multiparty system voters always assign a more or less stable set of default percepts about each of major parties and candidates. They also weight their sincerity on the basis of their default actions. And politicians know this and they are hard at work to enhance the default imagery about themselves with words about their future actions...


[1] In the first half of 18th century, Jacques de Vaucanson devised an automaton that convincingly imitated motions of a living duck, including drinking, eating and “digesting”.

[2] Norbert Wiener, for example, followed this thought; reversed the sign in equations and turned Shannon’s entropy into information. Consequently, the majority in the IT industry is not really aware that they are actually talking about pattern erosion rather than pattern’s meanings. With the change of the sign in the equations we have now a total confusion about what is information – really...

[3] Recovery from Early Blindness - A Case Study; Experimental Psychology Society Monograph No. 2 1963.

[4] The process of detailing our expectations is similar to expectation-maximisation algorithm in statistics complemented with the Kolmogorov’s zero-one law to split the symmetry of tail events.

[5] Terms unconscious and subconscious are often used to describe non-conscious. However, ambiguities of these terms do not allow for the clarity the term non-conscious offers.

[6] Remarkably, Descartes did notice a delay as habitual (reflexive) actions are deliberately turned into non-habitual (non-reflexive) actions – the delay Libet measured centuries later.

[7] A symbol is a pattern with a meaning we attach to our perceptual sensations and other learned activities like speech, dance etc. If we see a tail of a fox in the bush, for example, our brain cells start their cognitive dances, simultaneously. One group of cells will dance the “tail” dance, another group dances the “fox” dance etc. Each of these dances, or brain activities, is a pattern with a meaning. And all of dances together outline a symbol for fox with a variety of attributes.

[8] Note that all figures in the article are averages, unless a range is of an importance.

[9] See 1956 article written by cognitive psychologist George Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two".

[10] The accumulation of personal experiences is indicated in the changes of how the same genetic sequences are expressed, i.e. in epigenome. Unfortunately, the conclusive evidence of an impact of epigenome on the genome itself is still in the making.

[11] For example, a security employee may have expectations related to security in the shopping mall.

[12] Few drinks, for example, could make this almost impossible...


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
489 KB
Catalog Number
overview theory active perception complex adaptive systems



Title: An Overview of the Active Perception Theory