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Compare, Contrast and Evaluate the Nativist and Empiricist Views of Infant Perception

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Compare, Contrast and Evaluate the Nativist and Empiricist Views of Infant Perception Before going on to discuss the differing nativist and empiricist viewpoints, it is important to firstly establish what is meant by the terms 'infant' and 'perception'. Infancy can be described as the period from birth to 24 months of age. Perception refers to the brain's interpretation of the various sensory inputs it receives from the environment, such as light, sound, smell, touch and taste, and allows us to achieve an understanding about the world around us. The question of whether our basic perceptual understanding of the world is in-built and present from birth, or develops as a result of learning and experience, has been of much debate. Nativists hold the former view, that many perceptual abilities are present at birth. In contrast, empiricists take the latter position, arguing that there is a minimum level of experience necessary to support the development of the perceptual systems. Therefore both perspectives agree that development occurs subsequent to birth, but disagree on how much capability is present at birth. This essay will examine, using studies to gain insight, the evidence for each viewpoint. Infants cannot tell us what they can see, hear and discriminate; therefore this information has to be inferred from their behaviour. Researchers have devised several subtle techniques that allow us to measure infants' perceptual abilities, including the preference technique, study of the processes of habituation and dishabitiuation, and the use of the principles of conditioning. The preference technique involves presenting infants with two different stimuli (pictures or objects), and measuring how long they look at each. ...read more.


was shown to the infant. It was found that 3- and 4- month-old children showed renewed interest to the figure showing a different pattern, but not to the figure showing the same pattern. The rationale behind their study comes from research on what infants look at - in the first two months of life, most visual attention is devoted to where objects are in the infant's environment. When an object is located, searching stops and the edge of that object is scanned. At two to three months of age, however, there appears to be shift from the focus on where an object is, to what an object is. At this stage, entire objects, rather than just their edges, are scanned by infants - more time is spent looking at the internal features of objects and patterns are noticed. This progression through stages, however, provides support for the empiricist perspective. Infants also possess the ability to recognise and discriminate between more complex patterns, such as faces. Fantz (1961, cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003) showed infants three stimuli based on a face - one with features arranged correctly, one with jumbled up facial features and a control with the same overall brightness as the other two (containing no facial features but a black/white contrast). Infants from a few days old up to six months of age were tested, and it was found in all cases that the longest time was spent looking at the correct facial arrangement, somewhat less time spent looking at the jumbled up face, and considerably less time spent looking at the control. ...read more.


Meltzoff and Borton (1979, cited in Bee, 2000) gave four-week old babies a dummy with either a smooth, or knobbly surface to suck on. On presentation of pictures of these different dummies, it was found that the infants preferred to look at the picture of the dummy they had previously sucked on. The above research suggests that there may be some innate connections (not all young infants are capable of such linkage of senses), with experience of specific objects and combinations aiding this process of intermodal perception. To sum up, it is clear that infants are, even before birth, armed with a number of perceptual capabilities. Visual perception, although initially not of the same quality as adults, is sufficient and rapidly improves, and auditory perception is remarkably accurate even before birth. Infants are also capable of combining sensory information from a young age, with depth perception developing a little later (some say three months, others say six). We have discussed many arguments for both the nativist and empiricist perspectives; the presence of visual and auditory discrimination from birth (or prior to birth in the case of auditory perception) gives a strong case for the nativist perspective. The empiricist viewpoint can be supported by evidence showing the later onset of depth perception, and improvement of vision, and the effects of environmental deprivation on the senses. In conclusion, a combination of both the influence of learning and biological preparedness is perhaps the best, most informative option to take. It can be suggested that infants are born with the tools needed to make, for example, visual discriminations, but that the environment shapes the specific discriminations learnt - the basic system adapts to the specific environment of the infant. ...read more.

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