Perceptual Adaptation (Definition + Examples)

How do you know what is in front of you? The easy answer to that question is, “You see it.” But as some studies show and some psychologists suggest, the answer isn’t actually that easy. On this page, you will learn about perceptual adaptation. Psychologists like Henri Bergson suggest that perceiving the world around us actually requires some work that we’re not consciously aware of – including remembering everything we’ve ever known. 

Perceptual adaptation covers a lot of different processes and psychologists have many different takes on the subject. This makes sense – how we perceive our world affects everything we do! 

What is Perceptual Adaptation? 

Perceptual adaptation is the process by which we take in sensory information and pair it with previous memories to perceive the world around us. This idea was first introduced by French philosopher Henri Bergson in the late 1800s. This theory challenged previous ideas about sensory and perception. 

Today, perceptual adaptation resembles a theory called top-down processing, although that theory didn’t enter mainstream discussions in psychology until the 1970s. 

How Does Sensory Adaptation Differ From Perceptual Adaptation? 

Sensory adaptation is the process of filtering out, or getting used to, certain sensory information that our brains deem to be irrelevant. Perceptual adaptation is the process in which we take in that sensory information and our minds “fill in the blanks” with memories.

Sensory and perception are often confused or used interchangeably by young students of psychology, but they are quite different. Here’s one way to understand the difference. With sensory information alone, you can look at a face in front of you. You see the shapes that make out what you will eventually identify as eyes, nose, and a mouth. But what happens in between the rods and cones of your eyes taking in this face and your brain thinking, “this is my friend” or “this is my mom?” Perception happens. 

Bergson’s studies on patients with aphasia offer some insight as to why a person may be able to take in information and perceive it properly but cannot communicate that information back to others.

Bergson and Perceptual Adaptation

Henri Bergson was a French philosopher who thought outside the box. When he began his studies in philosophy, most of his colleagues believed that the outside world was just that – the outside world. The world was for humans to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. 

Bergson, in his 1896 book Matter and Memory, suggested there was more to that process. He defined different types of two different types of memory that remained in the mind until it was time for them to be of use. Memories “filled in the blanks” of the outside world. 

At the time that Bergson wrote Matter and Memory and gave speeches on what we now know as perceptual adaptation, another psychologist was beginning to introduce ideas that changed the world of psychology. Sigmund Freud’s light shone a little brighter than Bergson’s in the 20th century, but maybe that’s because Bergson was ahead of his time. The idea of perceptual sets and top-down processing were introduced a few centuries later but resembled a lot of the ideas that Bergson introduced in Matter and Memory. 

Examples of Perceptual Adaptation 

Memory is crucial to perception, suggested Berson. Fortunately, he believed that we remembered all our experiences. Whether those memories were repressed or recent, they come into play as we take in information about the world around us. Studies, performed by Bergson and later psychologists, whos just how important memory can be to understanding what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. 

Is It a Square or a Triangle? 

In 1932, Marius von Senden wrote about patients who recovered their sight after years (or a lifetime) of being blind. Once their sight was restored, they could move about the world normally, correct? Not so much. They had trouble identifying what was in front of them because they had simply never encountered things with their vision before. They didn’t know the difference between a sphere and a cube. One patient perceived a glass of lemonade as a square because the memories of the sour drink “pricking” his tongue resembled the touch of a sharp cube on his hand. Strange, right? The studies suggest how much we rely on past experiences and context to understand the world around us.

Henri Bergson’s Work With Aphasia Patients

Bergson spent years studying people who experienced aphasia, or the loss of ability to communicate. A person with aphasia may be able to hear another person and understand what they are saying, but they physically cannot speak their response. What does this say about the mind and the body? Bergson argued that they are separate. As a person is taking in the information that a person is saying, they pair the sounds with memory to understand the message. It’s the body, not the mind, that inhibits them from communicating back.

Perceptual Adaptation, Perceptual Sets, and Top-Down Processing

This page merely features a watered-down introduction to Bergson’s ideas on memory and perception. There is plenty more to dive into regarding his ideas on the different types of memory, the mind’s intentions for movement, and attention. Again, because Freud took the world of psychology by storm around the same time Bergson was writing, Bergson is largely overlooked in the history of psychology. But similar ideas to his resurfaced around 1970 when Richard Gregory introduced the concept of top-down processing in 1970.

What Is Top-Down Processing? 

Top-down processing occurs when a person uses previous experience and knowledge to interpret sensory information. Using terms that Bergson would appreciate, top-down processing occurs when we use memories to understand and fill in the blanks of what we are seeing in front of us. 

A classic example of this is seeing an image that looks similar to a B or a 13. Using top-down processing, your brain sees the image and your mind “fills in the blanks” based on memory and previous information. Maybe the font and where the image is placed signifies that it’s meant to represent a B. Or you’ve seen the image in contexts where it represents a 13.

Let’s say it’s nighttime and a person is walking toward you. All you can see is that they are probably 6’3”. Before you can see their face or hear their voice, you might have an idea of who the person is because you associate being tall with certain people in your life. As the person comes to light and you realize that it’s not the person you were expecting, you may feel taken aback and have to readjust how you feel or what you were going to say to them. 

What Are Perceptual Sets? 

How do we organize our memories so they help us understand the world properly? Bergson believed that all memories kind of “bumped up” against one another in our minds, ready to come to the surface when they were relevant. Other psychologists in modern history have different theories. The work of Piaget, Jastrow, and other psychologists led to the perceptual set theory. Perceptual sets are the ways in which we view the world. We apply perceptual sets to sensory information to understand the world around us. 

This concept is closely tied with the idea of schema, or frameworks that we use to organize information. As we learn new information about the world, we build out the schema that helps us to connect it to information we have learned in the past. That way, when we encounter something new, we can easily pull from the schema we have developed and understand what we are seeing. 

Of course, schemas are not perfect. Our perception of the world and our memories can lead us astray. 

Let’s say you were raised in a culture that associated women with dresses. You built out a schema in which only women wore dresses. When you see a figure wearing a dress, you assume it’s a woman until you receive information that alters your understanding of the person in front of you.

Bottom-Up Processing

Top-down processing and perceptual sets both align closer with Bergson’s ideas than bottom-up processing. Bottom-up processing occurs when you take in sensory information first, then use that to come to conclusions. In the case of the man in the dress, you may not be taken back so much while using bottom-up processing: you first see the dress, then you see the person wearing it, and then you form ideas on who wears what. Anyone who has jumped to conclusions knows that this doesn’t always happen. It’s more likely to happen as Bergson suggests in his theory of perceptual adaptation: we take in as much sensory information as we can, then our minds fill in the blanks. In unfamiliar territory, however, we use bottom-up processing more than top-down processing.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.