Perception and Thinking

We are confined to ways of describing whatever is described. Our universe, so to speak, consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”  Nelson Goodman

Visual Perception

Visual perception is the ability to make sense of information that we receive through our eyes. Visual perception can be described as consisting of three different stages:

  •  Parallel processing
  • Pattern perception
  • Goal-directed processing

In the first stage, the features such as the location, size, shape, and colour of an object are detected.  During this stage, certain aspects grab your attention such as dark objects stand out against light objects.

After the initial perception, you divide the visual field into different groups, and finally you try to make sense of what you see. A problem is that what we see is not a simple translation of the image on the retina. To describe the processes involved when we create what we have actually seen has proven a difficult task.  Part of perception involves focusing the attention to certain aspects. What we perceive are filtered, and depends on where or on what you decide to focus your attention. This influence and determine the decisions we make and many thinking mistakes are actually based upon mistakes that are make in perception.

Visual illusions may look like an activity that is only fun and stunning to look at, yet, they help to reveal some of the secrets involved in visual perception. By tricking and luring the brain to look at impossible figures and 3-D visualisations, some ways that we interpret the world are revealed. A visual illusion occurs when we see something that simply is not there.

Can you find the
the mistake?
 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8   

Taken for Granted

The ability quickly to decide what we perceive means that it is easy to take our perception of the world for granted. We rarely questions what we perceive through our major senses and it is easy to take for granted what we see before our eyes. To understand that we can trick and lure our eyes into seeing things that are not there in visual illusions may be easy.  However, the way we perceive our everyday world and objects may also differ.

  • Experiences of the world influence and change our visual perceptions.
  • Visual perceptions are not purely objective.

What we see is filtered, and culture and values as well as experiences influence the way perceptions are interpreted. The content and degree of these influences will be different for everyone, the same object or event can be perceived very differently by different people.

However, it is important to remember, that the perceptions appear to be logical and true. The art critic and historian James Elkins said, “No two people will see the same object”, and when you discuss thinking this is a vital thing to remember. Understanding that we have personal perceptions about the same thing helps us to overcome disagreements and to design fruitful ways of discussing ideas and solutions. Rather than arguing about who is right and who is wrong, it is more fruitful to explore and examine differences and similarities in the way people perceive a situation.


Our thinking is often limited because of limitations of our perceptions, and limitations in perceptions can lead to different interpretations of the same situation. There is more to an object than what we see and experiences influence and change our perceptions. The same neural network that helps us to interpret our visual perceptions also appears to be involved in imagination and dreaming. Awareness of how this influences our perceptions and ultimately our thinking and action is vital.

This link will take you to some visual puzzles. We invite you to reflect on the clues the puzzles give you and the consequences it has on thinking habits.

Photos: Avian Flu Virus by dream designs, TotoBaggins at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

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