Perception as a Human Endeavor

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading a lot about the intricacies of human perception and how we interact with the world around us. Or maybe I should qualify that statement and say how we “think” we perceive the world around us. A child’s perception of reality and learning in the classroom is a fascinating topic that Jean Piaget studied extensively over 50 years ago. Considering current cognitive research and modern technology, we have both increased our understanding of human perception and have raised even more interesting questions that have yet to be answered.

We often teach our students in elementary school that there are five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. But within each of these five we can subdivide each into a myriad of different sub-categories. For example, taste can be divided into sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Sight can be divided into four different senses: intensity, red, green, and blue due to the trichromic nature of our genetic makeup. Interestingly in just the last few years we have found a few individuals who are tetrachromic and have an extra gene that allows these individuals to see added colors that most of us are not privy too.

As it stands it is routinely recognized that we have a minimum of 21 different senses in the human body that are continuously gathering information 24 hours a day through our subconscious part of the brain. Research in cognitive science estimates that our subconscious gathers 11 million bits of raw data every second from all of our senses. But our conscious mind cannot process more than 40 bits/sec of information. So, moment by moment an individual is presented with a reconstructed reality delivered from the unconscious part of the brain that is a truncated version of the sensory data that has been collected. Yet we believe that what we are seeing is a “live feed” from our senses in real time.

With that in mind, how does a child perceive the surrounding world? And more importantly, how do we even begin to understand what they do perceive if we are all receiving an individual, sensory deprived version of reality? Piaget would certainly say that a young child views the world in a much different way than an adult. Research suggests the view of their world is anything but permanent but is in a constant state of flux. But the question for me is, how does an infant or a young child deal with the bombardment of sensory information? Do we innately have cognitive filters in place to protect us from sensory overload? Or are those filters developed in the first few months of life? How do those filters know what is important information and what can be disregarded? This is a fascinating topic that research is only now beginning to unravel. If I have learned anything from my reading, it  is that there is still much to learn.

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