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When you see or hear something in your environment, how does your brain recognize what you are seeing or hearing? This lesson introduces the cognitive perspective in psychology, including the difference between sensation and perception.

We’ll also discuss the famous Gestalt principles of perception that you do automatically every day but didn’t necessarily know there were names for what your brain was doing.

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Look at this image of a famous optical illusion. What do you see here? Can you simultaneously see two things at once? If we take the visual image away, can you re-create it in your mind?How your mind responds when a stimulus is presented in your environment is complicated, but at the same time, these complicated responses are often automatic.

The cognitive perspective in psychology is an area of the field that studies how people acquire, perceive, remember and communicate information. It includes how we respond to images we see or sounds we hear, how our minds change these stimuli into meaningful ideas and how we remember these ideas later. Several lessons will discuss the ideas of the cognitive perspective in psychology. This lesson is an introduction to the foundation of the cognitive perspective, which is sensation and perception.


Our five senses are vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell
Five Senses

We all have five senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. All five senses work because something in the environment sets off a sensory neuron in our bodies, and those neurons send a signal to the brain.

So, sensation is the process of an environmental stimulus starting the chain of events from one of our five senses to our brain in order to be recognized.Let’s think about touch as an example. When something touches any part of your skin that signal sets off the end of a sensory neuron, which is a cell in your skin. The end of the cell moves slightly, which sets off an entire series of electrical and chemical signals that go all the way to your brain. All of our five senses work in basically the same way. But in the process of sensation, those signals haven’t been transformed yet into recognizable ideas. That’s where the next step in the process begins.


After an electrical and chemical signal has gone all the way from a sensory neuron to the brain, perception occurs. Perception is when your brain transforms sensory experiences into meaningful ideas that can be processed and understood.For example, when something touches your skin, the process of sensation sends a signal to your brain, but perception is when you realize what just happened. What is it that touched you? Was it something gentle, like a feather? Was it something hot, burning you? What part of your body was touched? Another example of perception is with vision. On the sensation level, all that happens is that the rods and cones inside your eyeball process light and color. But on the perception level, your brain recognizes images, such as what your mother looks like compared to your cat or when you look inside your fridge to decide what to eat.

Perception is when your mind decides what just happened to you, and what it means.The sensation and perception processes occur so quickly and automatically that we don’t need to consciously think about them or even realize that they’re happening. When your mind does something so often that it occurs without your conscious thought process, it’s called automaticity.

We have automaticity for certain well-practiced motions, like how to walk or even how to drive after years of practice. We also have automaticity for sensation and perception. However, this automaticity can lead to certain interesting mistakes, as well.

When viewing this optical illusion, you could perceive the image in different ways
Optical Illusion

For example, look again at this optical illusion. At first glance, your perception of it might be that you interpret it in one way.

However, when you look at it more closely, you can realize that there’s another way to see the same image. In the early 1900s, a group of psychologists decided to identify some basic ways that our minds automatically process stimuli. Typically, these tendencies help us understand the world, but sometimes they lead to interesting illusions. These psychologists are called Gestalt psychologists, and they identified several rules or principles of perception organization. The word Gestalt can be translated as essence, or sometimes people refer to the Gestalt idea using the phrase, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ The rules identified by the Gestalt psychologists are usually called the Gestalt principles of organization. Let’s go over some of these rules.

Gestalt Principles of Organization

Probably the most famous of the Gestalt principles or rules is one called figure/ground. Figure/ground refers to the automatic tendency we have when we see an image of trying to pick out the most important figure in the visual field and filter everything else into the background. Typically, this is relatively easy, such as when looking at paintings of flowers or fruit. We can see that the figure, or central image, of the painting is the fruit, while everything else, like the table or room behind it, is the background. However, the figure/ground principle is what causes certain famous optical illusions as well.

Remember the famous image seen here? It’s a perfect example of this principle because you can’t tell if the figure is supposed to be the two faces looking at each other or if the figure is the vase or the candlestick in the middle. Which is the figure and which is the ground or background? The automaticity of vision and the figure/ground principle are what make this optical illusion interesting to us.Another Gestalt principle is called similarity, and that’s when we automatically group images that are similar with each other.

Look at this image. What do you see? If you’re like most people, you’ll group the circles of one color all together and group the circles of the other color all together. So, here, you see certain shapes, like a square form. This particular example is actually what eye doctors use to test whether people are color blind.

If you can’t differentiate the shape in this image from the rest of the image, then you aren’t able to tell the difference between the two colors of the image. The similarity principle helps us in our daily lives by making our brains very efficient in sorting through all of the individual aspects of our visual field.

Most people group the circles of the same color together

The next Gestalt principle of perception that we all use every day is called closure. Closure is when our minds automatically fill in missing parts of an image, or gaps, to see the image as complete, even when it’s not really.

Look at this image. Does your brain automatically fill in the missing lines to create the idea of an animal? Even though some of the information is missing, our minds realize what should be there. We do this when we walk down a city street, and we see cars parked, but there are things like light posts or parking meters in front of the visual image of the car. We don’t think, ‘Wow! That car is in two separate pieces, chopped in half!’ Instead, we simply realize that the light post or parking meter is covering up a missing part of the image, and our brains automatically fill in the missing piece.

Or, imagine that you’re in a jungle, and you see a snake wrapped around a tree branch. You realize that the parts of the snake that are on the far side of the tree branch are not viewable, but your brain knows that they’re still there.Another principle of perception that we use automatically is called proximity, which is the automatic tendency to group images that are close to each other. Think about the night sky.

Do you recognize images like the big dipper or Orion? The reason we see constellations in the stars is because we like to group stars that are close to each other and turn these random dots in the sky into recognizable images.Finally, let’s talk about the principle called continuity. When you look at this image, try to mentally follow a path along one line. When you got to the middle, your visual path probably didn’t suddenly change direction. Continuity is the automatic tendency to favor continuous paths when looking at a series of points or lines. Continuity is very helpful when we’re reading a road map, trying to see what towns we might pass through on a given highway.

It’s also helpful when we’re reading a spreadsheet, and we want to keep track of which column or row we’re on.

The Gestalt principle of continuity says that we tend to favor continuous paths
Principle of Continuity

While there are other Gestalt principles, you get the idea. Our minds have automaticity in the processes of sensation and perception to help us organize our worlds in the most meaningful and efficient way possible.

While usually these principles are very helpful, you can see how they could also create interesting optical illusions. Even though this lesson focused mostly on visual examples of organizational principles, you can imagine how we use the same principles for our other senses as well. For example, when you’re in a busy restaurant talking to your friend, you can filter out what your friend is saying from the noises in the rest of the room. That’s the principle of figure/ground at work but using the sense of hearing instead of the sense of vision. Your conversation with your friend is the figure, and all the chatter, the radio or TV and the glasses clinking away is the ground, or auditory background. Can you think of other examples?

Lesson Summary

The cognitive perspective of psychology studies how we think about, remember and perceive the world.

This perspective is sometimes called the information processing perspective.While sensation is how our brains receive stimulus information from our sensory neurons, perception is how our brains understand those pieces of information as meaningful ideas.The automatic tendencies we have as we interpret our world were identified by the Gestalt psychologists, who identified several principles of organization.The next time you walk around your house or town, try to recognize when you’re using these principles.

You’ll be surprised at how often you do!

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define cognitive perspective and Gestalt psychologists
  • Explain how sensation and perception work
  • Define automaticity and understand how it can create optical illusions
  • Describe these Gestalt principles of organization: figure/ground, similarity, closure, proximity and continuity

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