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What is meant by perceptual psychology?

Perceptual psychology: Exhibition visitors look at a painting and each of them perceives it subjectively.

Perceptual psychology is a branch of science that concerns the subjective aspects of perception, mainly with the processing of received sensory stimuli. With regard to vision, the conditions of receiving visual information are only fully comprehended by extending the physiology of the eye to include the psychology of perception.

Light represents the connecting medium. Lighting is classified and interpreted by human perception.

Interesting to know:

With vision, perceptual psychology together with the physiology of the eye takes into account all factors in the interplay between

  • the perceiving person,

  • the objects seen, and

  • light as the connecting medium.

Overview of the topic perceptual psychology

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What is the significance of perceptual psychology to seeing?

The often applied model of the eye functioning as a camera cannot fully explain the creation of the image perceived. It merely transports the object to be perceived from the outer world to the cortex, which is the part of the cerebral cortex enabling vision.

For a real understanding of visual perception, it is not so much the transport of image information that is important but the conversion or 'translation' of this information. This is where perceptual psychology comes into play. It supplements the physically recorded sensory stimuli with individual components to thus enable extensive perception.

How do people perceive their surroundings?

The process of visual perception is split into three steps:

  1. Sensation and reception of stimuli: an image of an object or the environment is created on the retina of the eye.

  2. Organising and evaluation of stimuli: In line with shape perception, what is seen is combined to create a coherent shape.

  3. Ordering and interpretation of stimuli: a meaning is assigned to the sensory impressions.

Is human visual perception innate?

The question of whether people's ability to perceive their environment in a contextualised or ordered way is innate (from birth) or learned from experience cannot be answered with complete clarity. Perceptual psychology splits here into several contradictory directions. Each of these directions can reference a range of evidence for its model, but none of these is able to plausibly explain all occurring visual phenomena.

There are indications for example that the spatial organisation of perception is innate: if babies or newborn animals are placed on a glass plate that is above a step, they clearly avoid the area above the lower step. In this situation, an innate visual recognition of depth and its associated danger takes precedence over information from the sense of touch which communicates a safe and flat surface.

What is the significance of experience in perceptual psychology?

It appears that perception also depends on previous experience. Thus, familiar structures are recognised more quickly than unfamiliar ones. Already gained interpretations of complex visual formations are kept to influence future perceptions.
Depiction with missing contours is recognised as a cross due to influence by factors of perceptual psychology.

Experience and its resultant expectations are sometimes so strong that missing parts of a shape are added or individual details are perceived as changed in order to modify the object to the expectation.
Here, the principles of constancy phenomena apply as part of visual perception.

Example of experience in perceptual psychology:

Perspective drawing of a room demonstrates the effect of expectation in perceptual psychology.

In a perspective drawing, the two thick vertical lines seem to have different lengths. This is explained by the fact that the observer interprets the drawing spatially. However, a line that is further away must be larger than a near line to produce a retinal image that is just as large as this near line – the line is therefore interpreted and perceived as larger in the spatial depth with actually identical length.


In perceptual psychology, innate mechanisms and one's own experience play a role. Presumably, the innate component fundamentally organises the perception. At a higher level of processing, the experience helps to interpret complex shapes.

What is subjective perception?

When people see, a form of selection or filtering occurs: the aim is to gain information about the surroundings but not to be overwhelmed by the abundance of sensory impressions. The perception is open to subjective interpretation. The human brain converts stimuli into perceptible images by applying its own principles of order. Individual responses to what is seen then follow.

How does lighting affect visual perception?

The effect that the type of lighting in the room has on visual perception can be explained with the help of an example. The adjacent figure graphically shows a room in shades of white and grey. The perspective and alignment of the lighting are directed towards the back wall in the room and to the right towards the side wall. On both walls, sharply outlined squares are laid out like pictures. The corner of the room between the two walls is in the same grey as the two picture surfaces.
This figure shows the effect of a continuous luminance progression on the walls. The progression of the lighter wall towards the grey corner of the room is interpreted as an illumination characteristic, and the reflectivity of the wall is understood as constant. The clearly contoured and uniformly grey picture surfaces are understood as a material characteristic or planar colour.
This example shows that light is not only the connecting medium, but is also classified and interpreted by us.

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Further topics on seeing and perceiving

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