§ 1. THE BEGINNINGS OF MENTAL LIFE IN THE INDIVIDUAL. In terms of the old descriptive unit, the beginnings of mental life, like the beginnings of behaviour, were a hodgepodge of inarticulate, unrelated elements. This time the elements were sense impressions and ideas. Since the dawn of psychology the main systematic problem has been to account for unity and order in mental life under the assumption that there was this chaos in the beginning. The mechanist movement took the form, first of faculty psychology and then of associationism. The vitalistic trend revealed itself in attention psychology. Each ended, finally, in a compromise that accepted the evils of both, a compromise that renders orthodox, present-day psychology systematically as hopelessly far from the truth as psychology was in the beginning. The compromise made attention and association, alike, agents of synthesis.

Accordingly, we were brought up to believe that the mind at birth consisted of so many distinct types of sensation:—visual, auditory, kinæsthetic, tactual, olfactory, gustatory. Somehow these discrete bits of experience appearing in consciousness one by one without unity and without order, fused and became unified wholes. But how? Logically, instruments of organisation, external to these processes, were required in order that such a mental machine could be a going concern. These instruments were association and attention, the two factors of mental life subject to law.

How did these factors supposedly bring order out of chaos? First, there was the primary law of association, viz., that when two experiences once occurred together a bond formed between them and, as a consequence, the one experience thereafter tended to suggest the other. There were many subsidiary or secondary laws:—the laws of similarity, contrast, cause and effect; then later, the laws of exercise or use and disuse (frequency), vividness, intensity, effect (bonding of an experience with pleasure or unpleasure), emotional congruity and intellectual congruity (special cases of the law of similarity). When psychology turned away from introspectionism it carried these laws with it and named them the laws of the conditioned reflex. These laws were also carried from sense experience to imagination and recall, over a logical bridge long since known as the physiological trace. Traces left in the nervous system by original sense impressions followed the laws of sensory organisation. The theory of traces committed the atomistic error over again with reference to temporal continuity. The mechanisms and laws of association, attention and memory-traces are as fictitious as the chaos which they were intended to remedy.

§ 2. DYNAMICS OF BEHAVIOUR AND PERCEPTION. Experiments in infant and child behaviour now reveal the fact that not only bodily movements, but the development of perceptual experience, follow the laws of dynamics. The infant for example, recognises whole situations first, such as his mother’s face. He can distinguish the face long before parts of the face are known to him, before there are eyes, ears, nose, hair, teeth, and even before there is perception of colour or a recognisable difference in brightness between one face and another. The face as a perceptual whole has properties of its own, such as friendliness and harshness, that cannot be referred to the parts. Similarly, the infant recognises the total effect of the handling he receives from different persons. The touch of each person is different although the difference is not traceable to particular pressures or movements. The total-feels differ as wholes.

§ 3. PERCEPTUAL WHOLES. That perceptual wholes are primary can be tested in still another way. After the child is old enough to recognise pictures of faces and even the actual existence, in faces, of eyes, nose, ears and other features, he cannot recognise an eye or a nose separate from the face. It is no longer an eye, but an aeroplane; no longer an ear but a coil of rope or a bird’s nest; no longer a nose but a tent or a mountain; no longer a mouth but a stairway. In each case the segregated parts take on whole properties; and it is two or more years later before these segregated objects can be identified by the child as parts of the whole from which they were taken.

§ 4. SYNÆSTHESIA. Evidence that the whole-character of perceptions is primary and that the specific sensory processes to which they can be reduced are secondary, is found in the phenomenon of synæsthesia. It has long been supposed, erroneously, that synæsthesia was a product of association. Consider a case of coloured hearing as an illustration. For a certain individual, piano tones are yellow, flute tones are blue, and clarinet tones are red. Another, who does not see colours when he hears tones, naturally thinks that the synæsthesic individual hears tones as he does; but this is an entirely wrong impression. For the synæsthesic individual, the visual and auditory aspects of his tonal experiences are not differentiated; the one cannot be abstracted from the other. Without the visual processes the listener is deaf to the tone.

Functionally, non-synæsthesic individuals perceive tones just as synæsthesic persons do. The perceptions are only phenomenologically different. Note how tones are ordinarily described. They are round, smooth, rough, harsh, soft, mellow, stringy, full, thin, high, low. A tone might as well be red as mellow, green as soft, white as rough. In fact, all persons are functionally as synæsthesic as the one who sees colours when he hears tones, for the perfectly good reason that a tone “sensation” is not after all a sensation. It is an extremely complex auditory configuration, a unit in its own right, having the meaning of a tone, but no more auditory in its sensory quality than the words employed to describe it would indicate. We hear with the brain as a whole; which means that if we must describe a tonal experience in terms of sensations, we feel, see, touch, and smell tones quite as much as we hear them. It will be of no avail to argue that such aspects of a tonal experience as require these “borrowed” terms to describe them are really auditory after all, but the trouble lies in our language; for we have the intelligence to invent words when we need them without mixing meanings in such an unseemly fashion. It will avail no one to assert that these experiences to which red, green, round, smooth, rough and mellow refer are associational luxuries tied to a tone quality; for, upon abstracting these experiences, there is no quality left. The colours are actually essential aspects of hearing.

This is not the whole story. Just as it was long supposed, erroneously, that there was a particular discrete quality of sensation that corresponded with a given physical type of stimulation, a view known as the constancy hypothesis, so it was thought that the human being perceived discrete kinds of spaces—visual space, auditory space, tactual space. Again, recent experiments prove the contrary. Cutsforth1 has shown that there is no tactual space except in meaning. Tactual experiences are inseparable from visual and, without a visual background, do not form spatial wholes. Let a blindfolded observer explore an object, easily recognisable through vision. If he recognises the object at all it will be through visual imagination; but the chances are against any recognition of the object. Touch processes will not, alone, organise into space forms, even with practice. The adventitiously blind must rely, over the years, upon visual imagination for the space field within which to locate and perceive form, direction and extent. Gelb and Goldstein2 found that a patient suffering from lesions of the so-called visual area of the brain was able to say that something happened when he was touched; but he could not tell where he had been stimulated. Aviators who have had experience of blind flying report that, even with instruments, it is very difficult to keep oriented with respect to earth; and that without instruments it is impossible. The equilibratory sense is not sufficient to inform them when their plane is right side up or upside down in the absence of a visual reference point, the horizon. Even with instruments that inform the pilot when he is upside down it is difficult to know in which direction upside down is.

§ 5. PRIMITIVE PATHIC STATE OF PERCEPTION. Available illustrations that disprove the orthodox conception of perceptual experience are legion. There is only one choice to make. The original consciousness of the infant is not a “big, booming, buzzing confusion.” Confusion means a mass of unrelated, discrete entities. On the contrary, the ordinal consciousness is a relatively homogeneous, undifferentiated field, potentially visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactual, olfactory, all in one.3 Out of this relatively homogeneous total field there emerge forms that are figured upon a ground, just as local movements emerge through an individuation process from a total pattern of mass action. As they emerge, these forms are qualitatively distinguishable from one another, not because they are unanalysable, pure, simple qualities, but because as complex wholes, their whole-properties differ from one another. Qualities are subordinate field properties which, like secondary gradients in physiology, derive their characteristics from the whole from which they emerge. This emergence of quality is induced by stimulation of sense organs, and is, again, an expression of the growth potential. The individual’s consciousness, then, is another case of an expanding, differentiating, dynamic whole.

§ 6. EXAMPLE. Consider how a person identifies the pitch of a tone. There is good reason why he designates a certain tone as high and another as low. Audition, as such, will not constitute a field of its own; pitch emerges from a ground of visual experience. Before pitch can be discriminated a tonal range of pitches must be heard and apprehended as a whole, and a single particular pitch must be apprehended in its place along the range. The range is not built up by adding pitches together through association; the individual pitches differentiate from the range. Range has extent; and there is no auditory extent, as such. Thus a pitch is actually seen in a range as well as heard. It matters not that a person sees a piano keyboard or some other visual object with which he is said to associate the high and low pitched tones. This object merely conditions the particular manner in which a necessary visual ground differentiates into specific points along an extended range.

The same visual ground is the field property from which sounds derive, for seeing persons, their localisation in space. Much has been said about the importance of binaural hearing, phase differences, intensity differences, and the like, as if they, as discrete factors, accounted for sound localisation. True it is that phase and intensity are certain essential modes of stimulation; but only if the erroneous constancy hypothesis were true would this mean that the product, a tone shifting in space, was experientially an auditory process shifting in an auditory field. The tone shifts in a visual field.

§ 7. THE LAWS OF PERCEPTION: LAW I. Perception, like movement, is always organised, and follows the laws of dynamics that were presented in the preceding chapter. First, the term perception is applicable to any conscious experience no matter what the degree of phenomenological complexity or simplicity. As to the atom, versus the universe, all known explanatory laws apply to the simplest sensory experience as well as to the most complex emotion or thought process. The plan of the entire “mind” is contained in the simple process of seeing or hearing. Any mental process that “stands up” under observation is a whole, possessing a field property, and is phenomenologically complex. It has properties over and above those that are ascribable to its analysed parts. The outstanding field property of any perceptual experience is its meaning. Look at a square. Squareness is a property of the perceived figure as a whole. It is not contained in the four lines or in any given section of space within its boundaries. It is logically equivalent to a gravitational or a physiological gradient. Consider a melody. A melody is the whole-property of a certain sequence of tones. No sequence shorter than the whole is the melody; yet the melody is a distinct experience, perceptible without an explicit recognition of the individual notes. A printed word is an excellent illustration of a perceptual whole. In fact children learn to read best by perceiving words as wholes first, before letters are distinguishable.

The following is a splendid example of this principle; the incident actually occurred in a certain kindergarten. The teacher was in the habit of dismissing the children one by one after they had recognised their name, among others, when written on the board. It was Fred’s turn. The teacher wrote Freddie on the board, along with Johnnie, Walter, and Charlie. Fred insisted that his name was not there. The teacher insisted that it was. Finally Fred was excused from the room. He told his mother, on returning home, that he was “dumb”, for the teacher had said so; he did not know his name. His mother investigated, and discovered that he knew his name, even his full name, Frederick, and could write either Fred or Frederick. The next afternoon the performance in the kindergarten was repeated, but Fred’s mother was in the room. She asked the teacher to write Fred or Frederick, not Freddie, whereupon Fred recognised his name at once. Freddie, as a word, was different from either Fred or Frederick; it was perceived as were the other two words, as wholes. Fred could not see that “Freddie” contained the word Fred, for he had not reached the analytical stage of seeing words within words.

§ 8. LAW II. Second, parts derive their properties from wholes. Returning to the illustrations given under law one, all of the lines of the square derive their position and direction from the figure-as-a-whole. Their peculiar brightness is derived from a range of brightnesses just as the pitch of a tone is derived from a tonal range. The position of the square is derived from a total space-field; its “thereness” is derived from a differentiated field of space that, at the same time, has other “therenesses”. The individual tones of a melody derive their position and appropriateness from the melody as a whole; their pitch is selected relatively to their position in the melody; the proper emphasis and duration of each note are also derived from the nature of the melody as a whole. Again, the individual letters of the word, Fred, are selected with reference to the sound of the word as a whole, and their position depends upon the whole-property of the word.

§ 9. LAW III. Third, the whole conditions the activities of its parts. In drawing a square, the movements of making each line are conditioned by the total perceptual-motor pattern of the square as a single unit. That each side means the side of a square and not the side of something else is determined by the figure-as-a-whole.

Beautiful illustrations of this law are found in reversible illusions. In figure 2, x may be seen either as the upper or under surface of a stair, depending upon how the stair-as-a-whole is seen.

Fig. 2

In reading proof it is so difficult not to see each letter in the light of the whole word that, often, errors are missed. Expose a word like f ther for only a tenth of a second and frequently the letter “a” will be seen when it is not there. Let several digits be exposed briefly with one of them upside down and all will be perceived right side up. Expose an incomplete pattern and it will be seen completed, for the part that is wrong will take on the proper membership character in the whole.

§ 10. LAW IV. Fourth, parts emerge from wholes through a process of individuation. This law has already been illustrated in the development of the child’s perception of a face and its parts. At first the infant sees a face as a whole, unable to pick out its different parts, yet able to distinguish one face from another. The parts then emerge from the face but are not recognisable away from it. Finally, the parts acquire sufficient properties in their own right, that is, sufficient individuality, to be recognisable as parts of a face, when not drawn with the face. Experiments with brief exposures of complex figures and arrangements of digits show that the observer sees, first, a mass of black standing out on a white ground. This is before any parts within the field can be identified, in fact, before any part takes on position. Then the parts emerge with their properties of position and identity, or form.

§ 11. LAW V. Fifth, wholes evolve as wholes. This law is evident from the first illustrations given in the preceding paragraph. No matter how differentiated the perceptual pattern, at each stage in its growth it is an organised whole. Each newly-discovered fact is not added from an outside source associated with the pattern; the new increment comes from the whole itself, related to it as it appears.

This law is best illustrated, perhaps, in the early perceptual life of the child. The child’s experience grows, not by an accumulation or accretion process, but by an expansion that involves differentiation. This is proved by the child’s use of words. A little girl was out walking with her mother one day when they stopped for a moment on the bridge over a mill-race. The mother permitted her daughter to throw sticks and stones into the water, and informed her that what she saw was a mill-race. The next day they were on a train going to the beach. They passed over a bridge, a hundred feet above a large river. The child looked down and said:—“Mother, there’s a mill-race.” And when they arrived at the beach the daughter danced up and down with glee, shouting:—“Mother, there’s a great, big mill-race!” Children often call a muff or a skunk a kitten after learning that their pet is a kitten. The author’s daughter learned the word baby before she was a year old and called herself baby when looking into a mirror; called bold paper and real dolls, babies; people whom she met on the street were babies, and even a statue in the nearby park was given the same name. Here there is shown the unified and undifferentiated, not confused, character of the child’s early perceptual processes.

When the child discovers how to analyse, his perceptual life still retains its character of unity. Now, however, experiences are differentiated; and perceptual wholeness expresses itself phenomenologically in terms of concepts, or abstract ideas. The mill-race, river and ocean are still alike in some way; but their similarities have emerged in a sufficiently explicit fashion to be verbalised and used purposively. These three objects are alike in being bodies of water, or in having waves. A muff, a cat and a skunk are alike in having fur. By this time the child is able deliberately to employ the whole-character of his general perceptual experience, in the form of concepts, principles and generalisations. Then he is reasoning.

§ 12. LAW VI. Sixth, the law of least action. That perception obeys the law of least action may be noted in the dominance of symmetry and balance in works of art, in conventional symbols such as the alphabet, dollar-sign, percent sign and asterisk. An irregular figure, briefly exposed, is seen as having more symmetry and balance than it actually possesses. Balanced, symmetrical designs are easier to perceive than irregular ones. Let a slightly irregular figure drawn in white upon a black background be fixated for several seconds. In the negative after-image that may be seen immediately afterwards, by focussing the eyes upon a neutral ground, the figure takes on perfect symmetry; the “error” in the design is corrected. The figure completes itself toward a more stable pattern, an occurrence quite analogous, in its dynamics, to the falling apple in the gravitational system.

§ 13. LAW VII. Seventh, the law of maximum energy. A test of the law of maximum energy, in the field of perception, lies in the determination whether perceptual processes undergo attenuation in the course of time. It is true that once a certain figure has been seen, as for example a face, a brief exposure of only part of the face may be given and the complete face will be seen. The perception is, in conventional language, filled in by imagination. But the face is not a face until it is filled in. Here, as far as perception goes, the imaginative factor cannot be separated from the sensory. There is, after all, no attenuation, no simplification, but rather a perception that retains its organisation when stimulation is, with respect to previous stimulations, incomplete. The same principle is seen clearly in imaginative recalls of past events. One visualises the mountain scenery he enjoyed during his summer vacation. The perceptual pattern is partly reconstructed, phenomenologically, in the absence of many of the original stimuli, but not all of them. The configuration is similar, however, to the original. Again there is no attenuation, no dropping out of details with respect to a given stimulus situation. Cut down the stimuli and the experience is cut down phenomenologically. Each experience is maximum with respect to existing conditions.

There is no more a simplification or dropping out of processes in mental life, in the course of attaining ends, than there is involved less energy each time a ball is dropped to the floor.

This law may be illustrated in another way. A given figure must be perceived as a whole or not at all. To perceive part of it only is to perceive another figure of a different character. The clearest case, perhaps, is found in apprehending meanings. The number one, for instance, does not mean a fraction of 1 although the fraction may be as high as .99999999. Similarly, 1 does not mean anything more than 1, no matter how slight the difference may be.

§ 14 LAW VIII. Eighth, the law of configuration. Imagine two narrow slits an inch long, cut vertically in cardboard, an inch apart. Let an apparatus be imagined behind the screen that will expose a light first through one of the slits and then the other, with any desired length of exposure, interval of time between the two exposures, and intensity of illumination. If these three factors are properly controlled, light may be exposed first through one slit and then through the other. Neither exposure will be seen. Instead, a flash of light will be noticed, moving from one of the slits to the other. This is the familiar moving picture illusion. It was investigated by Wertheimer in 1912. The result of his experiment was a revolutionising of modern psychology; for he showed the necessity of adopting the organismic point of view in place of the atomistic one.

Note that between the two slits there was no stimulation of the retina, yet movement between them was seen. There are conditions under which the movement is poor; conditions under which two stationary slits of light will be seen at the same time, and conditions under which two successive exposures will be seen, all depending upon the time, space and intensity relations of the stimulating conditions.

An interesting aspect of this simple experience is the fact that, under the conditions for good apparent movement, nothing is seen until the second exposure is made. The whole-character of the perceptual process is not only demonstrated again; but the circumstances under which the whole-character exists are brought out. Movement is a field property of the perception and is conditioned by a total set of factors which must be complete before the perception develops. In other words, the perception is an organised response to a total situation; it is a temporal as well as a spatial unit. Until the conditions for completing the movement are set up, the movement does not commence. One of the conditions for the completion of the movement is the exposure of light through the second slit. How familiar a ring this account has, for the falling apple requires a remote end, the centre of the earth, before it can fall. Physiologically, a perception is reduced to wave motion in the brain, but the differentials in potential must be set up before the movement will occur; and these are set up by the two stimulations in their relation to the dynamics of the total brain.

Now let the light exposed through the first slit be a weak one and the light through the second, a stronger one. Nothing will happen until the second light is exposed; then movement will be seen going in the opposite direction from the order in which the slits were exposed—from the second slit back to the first. This illusion is only momentary, for the movement switches back again. But the law of least action has been demonstrated under the conditions that existed at the moment of stimulation. Movement occurred from the higher to the lower potential, from the stronger to the weaker places of initial stimulation.

§ 15. PERCEPTION VERSUS ATTENTION. How much more scientific and satisfactory these laws are than the older vitalistic laws of perception that presupposed attention as the organising agent. In orthodox language, squareness, seen when four straight lines are appropriately drawn, depends upon an act of attention; reversible illusions are caused by shifts in attention. Attention is the state that prepares one for the perception of a given object at any time. If one does not hear his name called, it is because his attention was absorbed. When one looks at a five-spot on a die the organisation of the dots is a result of attention. Attention has covered a multitude of psychological sins; it has been a most convenient psychological deity capable of anything. Now, attention psychologists are shielding themselves behind the argument that, after all, by attention is meant not an agent, but a name for a set of conditions that control perception. Accordingly, attention is a state of preparedness accounting for the selective factor in perception. It is a brain condition; it is intensity of stimulus, movement of stimulus, the number of stimuli, anything that helps to condition a perception. Since when have we required a single term to connote a variety of conditions, among themselves possessing no unity or interrelations? In these circumstances the conditions must speak for themselves. To insist upon an attention factor is merely to admit the old belief in the necessity for an external organising agent, a belief that conventional psychology has paradoxically repudiated in its reduction of attention into unrelated conditions of perception, while retaining the concept of attention.

Selection, in perception, is traceable to the conditions under which perception occurs. These conditions act directly on perception, not through an intermediary process. Intensity of stimulus, movement of stimulus, number of stimuli, arrangement of stimuli, all condition observation, not of attention. Attention is superfluous and a fiction. The laws of human behaviour, then, as far as its perceptual aspects are concerned, are the laws of dynamics, not supposed laws of an attention that limits one’s powers of observation at one time, helps them at another, steps in and guided a perception first in this direction and then in that. The so-called range and fluctuations of attention are no more and no less than the range and fluctuations of perception.

Logically, if the laws of perception were reduced to laws of attention, one would be forced, for consistency, to posit attention as the cause of mental development. Mind in the beginning was attention. If attention is a condition of perception it must come first. Attention with nothing to attend to! How incongruous! No more incongruous, however, than any mechanistic or vitalistic conception. And finally, if one attempts to identify attention with organisation he is making two things out of one, the absurdity of which is demonstrated by the following statements:—The perception was attentioned; the perception was an attentioned response. These assertions are meaningless and ridiculous; yet, if “organised” is substituted for “attention” the assertions are meaningful. This fact alone proves that attention is not organisation; it refers to an alleged mental process by itself, a fictitious intermediary between organisation and perception.

1 . Cutsforth; An Analysis of the Relation Between Tactual and Visual Perception; Lawrence; 1930.

2 . Gelb and Goldstein; Über den Einfluss des vollständigen Verlustes des optischen Vorstellungsvermögens auf das taktile Erkennen; Zsch. f Psych.; Vol. 83; 1919, 1-93.

3 . Cattell; The Subjective Character of Cognition; Brit. J. of Psy. Monograph Supplement, No. 14, 1918.

The Laws of Human Nature
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