Are perceptual abilities innate?

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Are perceptual abilities innate?

When considering the above question, it is important to first take account of the much wider nature vs. nature debate that surrounds the subject of perception in developmental psychology. Psychologists who advocate the nature side of the debate are known as nativists and they believe that perceptual abilities are present from birth and are genetically inherited through an entirely innate process. Conversely, empiricist psychologists believe that perception develops due to the effects of nurture and argue that infants are born a ‘blank slate’ with abilities developing as a result of increasingly gained experience (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003, pg 319). Due to substantial evidence from a number of different experiments supporting the nativist view on areas such as infant perception of depth, size constancy and pattern and face recognition, I believe that perceptual abilities are predominantly innate. However, in regards to the nature-nurture debate, I do not believe that the role of environment can be ignored in the development of perceptual abilities and that it occurs via an interdependent working together of both nature and nurture.

It is an undisputed fact that newborn infants are born with very little knowledge with which to interpret sensory input that they receive from the environment (Taylor, 2005, p41). An interesting experiment by Gibson and Walk (1960) however proved that babies as young as 6 months do indeed have the perceptual abilities to detect depth. Gibson and Walk devised a ‘visual cliff’ which consisted of a large Plexiglas table under which a black and white high contrast chequered cloth was placed. For one half of the table, the cloth was placed immediately beneath the Plexiglas yet halfway across the table the cloth dropped vertically down by about 4 feet thus creating a ‘cliff’. The overall effect was the creation of ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ end. Gibson found that when called by their mother from the deep end, the babies refused to cross the apparent chasm showing that they had perceived the drop. This study provided for the nativist view as it is unlikely that the babies were drawing on learning from past experience as this was a novel situation for all the babies.

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Another experiment which supports the nativist view was conducted by Bower (1965). Looking again at depth perception in infants, Bower conditioned babies to associate sucking on a pacifier with the reward of an adult popping up saying ‘peek-a-boo’ which would excite the baby. The adult would only pop up however when the baby sucked on a pacifier in the presence of the original 30cm cube. Bower presented various different sizes of cubes at various distances and measured the amount of sucking each cube elicited. He found that, even when presented at a distance thus resulting in a much smaller retinal ...

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