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Perception as an active process

In this video, Kristian Nymoen discusses how our bodily experiences shape how we actively perceive different phenomena.
In this video, we will have a look at perception and cognition and how our bodies are actively involved in perceiving and understanding our environment. Consider what happens when you hear a song. An obvious chain of events is sound waves hitting your eardrum, causing a chain of vibrations in your middle and inner ear, which is picked up by a large number of nerve cells and sent as electrical signals to your brain. We recognise these signals as various instruments, with rhythm, pitch, harmonies, and lyrics. And this cocktail of sound has the power to put you in a certain emotional state.
In this video, we will look at some of the processes involved in the example that I just gave and also detail out what is missing in such an explanation of how we understand the world around us. When you’re listening to music, are you only listening? In fact, perceiving is a more appropriate term than listening. Even the most attentive audience of classical music does not only listen when perceiving music.
In addition to auditory input, visual input plays an important role. And movement, either as physical body movement or just sensations of movement, is an important part of music perception, as well as emotional responses, a sort of attunement to the emotions expressed in the music. So knowing that music perception involves active processes like movement or emotional attunement, is your perception of music determined by the music itself or by your preconception of the music? For a long time, psychologists have debated whether perception is a bottom-up or a top-down process.
Bottom-up in this sense refers to a data-driven process where perception starts with the stimulus itself, from vibrations in the air to the auditory cortex, where the analysis of a stimulus gets more and more complex. Top-down refers to hypothesising about stimuli based on previous experiences and memories. Neither of the two extremes is capable of explaining all perceptual phenomena alone, and most psychologists today agree that perception involves both bottom-up processing and top-down processing. In the field of embodied cognition, cognitive processes are explained as being inseparable from the body. The perceiver is not only a passive receiver of information which is being processed and understood in the brain alone. Rather, the perceiver is active and interacts with the environment.
And several researchers in the last part of the 20th century contributed with theories and findings that support this. James Gibson introduced the term affordances, which he defined as action possibilities. In Gibson’s explanation of what he called the ecological approach to perception, actions are integral to perception. The way that a person perceives something cannot be separated from the person nor the actions it affords to the person. For instance, a table might afford the action leaning on to an adult. But a small child might be unable to reach the table, and so the table is not perceived in the same manner. The table might rather afford the action standing under to the child.
Another theory that supports the idea of an active perceiver was George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work on metaphors. In the book Metaphors We Live By, they argue that experiences of the world are heavily structured around metaphors, and metaphors relating to our own physical and social experiences in particular. Alvin Liberman and Ignatius Mattingly argued that the way we perceive speech is by means of projecting the perceived sounds onto our own vocal apparatus. In other words, we understand words by mentally mimicking the sound production. This theory was met by harsh criticism and is still being criticised. However, it was strengthened by the discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s.
A group of researchers in Parma, Italy, was studying activity of the premotor cortex in the brain of macaque monkeys. Previously, activity had been found in the premotor cortex whenever a monkey did certain types of planned action, such as picking up an object. Incidentally, during a break in the experiments, the researchers observed activation in the premotor cortex of the monkey when the monkey sat stationary watching the experimenter perform the same action. In other words, there is motor activity in the brain, not only when performing an action, but also when perceiving an action. The neurons that fired during observation have been labelled mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons have later been found to fire also when monkeys hear the sound of an action, such as the sound of breaking a stick. And even for pianists, activity has been found in the premotor cortex when listening to a piano piece without any overt movement.

Music perception is more than just listening.

Our own experiences as humans with bodies shape the way we perceive different phenomena. For instance, we know how to produce a clapping sound. This means that perceiving the sound of a clap is not just receiving and interpreting the sound signal, but perceiving the action “clapping”.

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