Perceptual Psychology Nativism vs Empiricism

The entire area of psychology, as well as related strands of philosophy and neuroscience, is informed by and connected with the debate between nativism and empiricism, with constructivism thrown in for a good measure somewhere just off the middle ground. This empiricism – nativism argument is also at the heart of perceptual psychology, and particularly the study of development of perception.

In the study of perceptual development, nativism proposes that people are genetically equipped with all their perceptual abilities (regardless of whether they are present at birth or develop in the process of maturation.) Empiricism claims that cognitive functions, including perceptual ones, develop as adaptations to the environment, through experience and learning. It is a sophisticated version of the old-as-the-hills nature-or-nurture debate.

The empiricism – nativism controversy is also connected to the concept of human mind as either general problem solver, (as proposed by what became to be known as the SSSM, or the Standard Social Science Model, including very influential theories such as behaviorism,) or a system with specialized modules, (as most commonly claimed by evolutionary psychologists and those influenced by evolutionary thinking.) Those who support a modular concept of mind tend to be of a more nativist orientation.

Perceptual development is at the very center of the nativism – empiricism controversy. Nativists claim that the human mind is equipped with innate perceptual categories, which are either present from birth or naturally emerge as a result of maturation of the nervous system. The raw input from the sensory organs is processed by specific, functional modules that are hard-wired into the brain.

The main areas of research that are used in attempts to resolve the empiricism – nativism controversy are studies of human newborns and babies, studies of animals, studies of adaptation to environmental changes, and comparative studies of different cultures.

The strongest argument against the empiricist position comes form the cross-cultural studies, which show that most basic perceptual structures are pretty universal and independent of even large variations in environmental stimulation. This doesn’t mean that many perceptual processes, especially more complex ones, are not heavily influenced by experience. Studies of adaptation show that such culturally variable perceptions are subject to corrections when the individual is exposed to different stimulation. The differences between cultures are likely to be differences of emphasis constructed on the solid basis of the universal perceptual modules that are characteristic of all humans.

A potential for developing perceptual modules, as well as potential for having them modified (to a certain degree) by environmental input is likely to be hard- wired.

The experimental and other research evidence is not clear in supporting one of the positions. Both sides of the debate can present many arguments in their favor, and it is most likely that some combination of the two is actually true. In the history of social sciences, nativist and empiricist perspectives go in and out of fashion and can be usefully thought of as different paradigms of looking at and researching human mind and behavior.

Sources and further reading:

Bornstein M., Lamb M. (1999). Developmental psychology: an advanced textbook. Routlege, London.

Slater A. (Ed). (1999). Perceptual Development. Visual, Auditory and Speech Perception in Infancy. Psychology Press.