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ISU scholar explores the relationship between our senses and the real world

And now for something really challenging, yet deceptively simple. It's in a new book, "Introduction to Ecological Psychology, a Lawful Approach to Perceiving, Acting and Cognizing," by Jeffrey Wagman of Illinois State University and Julia Blau of Central Connecticut State University.

It's a book that describes very simple things in very complicated ways. It takes four chapters to describe how to get an apple out of a tree. And yet it's something Mom can understand. It’s also funny, said Blau.

“I hope it makes it so my mom understands what I do for a living. I'm joking, but I'm not, because it's weird, it's unusual. She’s a brilliant woman but knows nothing about this field. I wanted to be able to hand her a book and have her be able to read to the end and go, 'Okay, I now understand,'” said Blau.

Jeffrey Wagman from Illinois State University.
Jeffrey Wagman from Illinois State University.

Humans don’t see, hear, or feel everything. Senses are snapshots of the world that include some information, but not all of it.

“It's a way of describing how it is our senses allow us to know things about the world. In particular, how would they allow us to know things about the world so that we can perform everyday behaviors, walking, reaching, grasping, driving, stepping? It's a particular way we describe that process,” said Wagman.

Take the idea of a cup. In classical theories of perception, "cup" may be associated with certain things like "table" or "cupboard." Blau said ecological psychology looks at what a cup can do.

“A cup must be liftable, it must be able to contain liquid. It's less about the animal-independent descriptions of the thing, and more about the animal-dependent descriptions of those things. Another push of ecological psychology is we perceive the world in terms of relationships, especially to our ability to do stuff,” said Blau.

Wagman and Blau said other theories of perception look at the way people are bad at perceiving things. Their discipline flips that and looks at how good humans are at perceiving things. Wagman said if you think of all the ways the separate acts involved in getting up, walking to the refrigerator and getting food can go wrong, and how rarely they do, it shows humans are actually really good at perception.

These simple everyday things that we take for granted are almost miraculous and yet completely mundane and simple, said Blau.

“There's zero reason why evolution would have equipped us with something that required all of these really high-level computations to work. Instead, our perceptual system needs to be simple, so we can achieve eating and sleeping and avoiding predators,” said Blau.

If you can describe all kinds of interactions in the world with something simple, you've found a law, said Wagman.

“That means the more complicated issues are tractable in a way they might not seem to be without this framework in place,” he said.

Consider signing into a computer, putting in a password and clicking a button on the screen.

“We understand what makes a button look pushable because we study things like this. When you're designing an interface for humans, you can design that interface in a way that takes advantage of what we know from perception to make it easier to interact with,” said Blau.

The new book, "Introduction to Ecological Psychology, a Lawful Approach to Perceiving, Acting and Cognizing."

And there are other practical applications. If you can compress all of the complicated things into very simple rules or simple laws, then you can manipulate those laws to make something appear different, said Wagman.

For instance, a lot of motorists take the sharp curve on Interstate 55 to get onto Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. There have been a lot of accidents because people keep taking the curve too fast.

“They put up a million signs that say "slow down." No one slows down. Nothing changes. What they did was they put lines on the road. And as you went, they went, the lines got closer and closer together as you went forward,” said Blau.

Traffic engineers were taking advantage of what’s called optic flow, also a topic in ecological psychology.

“That tells you whether you're about to run into a wall. Right? If you're going to run into the wall, is it going to hurt, or are you going to gently come up against it? You can manipulate that optic flow to make it feel like you're going faster than you are, which is what they were doing with those lines. As people would come up to those lines, they would feel like they were going faster than they were. It makes them slow down,” said Blau.

It worked to reduce accidents in that area. And the very complex became simple in human perception — ecological psychology at work.

Listen to the full interview

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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