Direct perception is a theory arguing that sensory perception is the direct result of information from the surrounding environment. This conflicts with indirect theories, which argue that people use inferences and beliefs to make sense of their sensory experiences. These topics are a subject of lively debate in some corners of academia, as they touch upon both psychology and philosophy, where understanding how people perceive the world around them is a subject of much interest. A noted scholar in the field is James Gibson, who put forward a strong argument for direct perception in the middle of the 20th century.
Sensory information comes from vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, all of which provide information about the surrounding environment. Supporters of direct perception believe this is all the necessary information for understanding visual stimuli. This is a bottom-up approach, where people build knowledge about an environment from what they directly perceive. In the indirect hypothesis, researchers argue that people use a combination of a top-down and bottom-up approach, using both what they experience and inferences from previous experiences to collect information about their environment.
In an example of direct perception, a person standing in a library would have sensory feedback providing information about the books, shelves, and other furniture. A sensation of depth would be created by phenomena like superpositioning, where some shelves are in front of others. This could provide information about the depth and size of the library, as could feedback like varying size. The observer’s vision would show a set of identical shelves decreasing in size. Rather than assuming that some are smaller and others are larger, the observer would know that some are further away because of the contextual information about them.
Critics of direct perception argue that this view of perception is too simplistic, and does not account for the complexities of human perception. One topic of discussion is the argument from illusion, which brings up the point that sometimes people perceive things that are not there, or mis-perceive sensory information. These perceptual tricks suggest that something more than simple feedback from the environment is going on; someone who sees pink elephants dancing in a conga line in the middle of the woods, for instance, is not actually seeing them. Clearly some cognitive processing is involved, which explains why the brain can be tricked with sensory stimuli that aren’t there, or with misleading sensory information.
Such theories are difficult to test in a controlled fashion because perception involves processes in the brain that are not easy to quantify. Using imaging studies, for example, researchers can see which areas of the brain activate when people are exposed to stimuli. They cannot, however, see what these brain regions are doing when they become more active.