Ulric (Dick) Neisser passed away on February 17, 2012. Agnes Szokolszky had interviewed him for a book about ecological psychology consisting of interviews with key people. The interviews were done in 1997 and never published. When Eleanor Gibson died in 2002, Szokolszky allowed us to publish her interview with Gibson inEcological Psychology15(4). Given that this unpublished interview existed, we thought it fitting to commemorate Dick by publishing the interview.
—William M. Mace
Q.In this interview project I would like to explore how it happened that a scientific movement has been born based on the work of James and Eleanor Gibson. You have been there from the very beginning, so I'm asking you first about those early times when you first met the Gibsons.
A. Well, I came to Cornell in 1967 and when I came I had just finished a book calledCognitive Psychology, which, luckily for me, turned out to be an influential book because I was saying a lot of things that people were wanting to hear around the late sixties. The bookCognitive Psychology, which I had been working on for about two and a half years before coming to Cornell, really emphasized the information processing approach and helped to shape this approach that a lot of people were interested in at that time. I did not know about Jimmy Gibson's new work, or I knew rather little about it. I had read Gibson's first bookThe Perceptual and Visual Worldthat came out in 1950. I had read it when I was a graduate student and while I thought it was a good book, it did not seem to me particularly stunning or revolutionary. Although, in retrospect I see now that it was more original than it seemed to be when I was a student. What did I know then? I had met both the Gibsons a couple of times at meetings. One, I think, was at the Psychonomic Society, and we talked a little, but I had not read Gibson's 1966 book,The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. I was coming to Cornell and I had not read that book. In fact, when I wroteCognitive Psychology, I did not even know about that book. That's not too surprising, because Gibson's book was so different from anything that was going on in anybody else's head then, that I wouldn't have known what to do with it if I had read it. Anyway, they hired me here even though I was an information processor; perhaps they saw that there were possibilities. My main job when I was hired was to teach the course in perception. At that time Gibson had some kind of a grant, a lifetime career award, so he did not have to teach. His salary was based on research. Julian Hochberg had been here teaching perception but he had just left to take a job elsewhere and so they needed someone to teach perception. I think that was the slot that I was called upon to fill. When I taught the perception course, I had two teaching assistants—John Kennedy and James Farber. I had the feeling that in some way they were always laughing and that they knew something I didn't know but I didn't quite know what it was.
Q.Farber was Gibson's graduate student, wasn't he?
A. Both Farber and Kennedy were Gibson's graduate students. And Kennedy has continued to work in related areas ever since that time. I taught a fairly conventional course in perception at that time. I can't remember the book I used but it was on information processing and the rest of it.
At that time both Gibsons had the laboratory at the airport. To understand that, you have to realize that the psychology department here at Cornell was housed in a classic old building, where it had been housed since Titchener's time and there just wasn't a whole lot of room in that building for laboratories. So they [the Gibsons] managed to persuade the university to rent them space in an old building near the airport which is about ten minutes drive from here. There they had very exciting ongoing research programs. In addition to Farber and Kennedy, Al Yonas was there and others as well. I can't list all the names, but a lot of very interesting people were there. I started to hang out there for hours on end. I had conversations with Jimmy in which he would maintain that information was in the light and that perception was direct and the rest of those things. On the first account of these views I really thought he was going crazy. Then, after a while, I began to regard them as platitudes—you know, when one is looking at a view that one doesn't share, one swims very easily from the position that it's foolish to that it's obvious, basically two main defenses we have against positions that are not our own. That went on for several years.
FIGURE 1 Ulrich Neisser (right) with Jacob Beck. Ecological Optics conference, Cornell University, 1970. Courtesy of Sverker Runeson.
We were good friends with the Gibsons. My wife and I played bridge with them, and we saw them often. Jimmy was of course a wonderful person to have at a party or anywhere social, he would just lighten up any room that he came into, got you drinks, told jokes, he was a great guy. We were really good friends and we talked psychology, but not all the time.
Q.Actually, what made you change your position about his views?
A. Well I kept thinking about it and I read his earlier book,The Senses Considered. A couple of years after I got here, I forget just what year it was [1970 ed.], but there was the meeting on ecological optics that a lot of people at that time came to. David Lee and Julian Hochberg came (I have a wonderful picture somewhere here [seeFigures 1–3], I'll try to find for you later, that was taken at the Ecological Optics Congress) and I listened to all that stuff and it made quite an impression on me. After a while I began to think to myself that Gibson is right. Information is in the light. It has to be in the light. How can it be elsewhere? Partly I was prepared for this because I was getting discouraged with what had followed the publication of my book, Cognitive Psychology. The book was a great success, it made me famous and influenced the field, but not long before the end of the sixties I was already questioning it very seriously for reasons that had nothing in particular to do with Gibson. Two of the main themes in my book had been information processing on the one hand and this notion that perception was constructive, an active constructive process on the other hand, which at the time I thought I could put together into a general theory of perception and cognition. The information processing part of it really took off and we all began doing reaction time information processing studies. I found them increasingly boring and I found that I wasn't reading them and that I didn't care whether some reaction times were faster than other reaction times in a number of different paradigms. InCognitive Psychology, I tried to make psychology stay relevant to human nature. I addressed a lot of questions that I thought were about human nature, that were about important questions, and here were these people doing one reaction time experiment after another. It was pretty boring. I hadn't intended that. The other thrust of my book had been that perception was constructive, which I thought was a fine and wonderful phrase. It had a certain rhetorical fling to it, but I remember a number of things that made me suspicious of that. Once I got a letter from a psychiatrist saying how right I was and that he was really pleased to see this theoretically, that perception was constructive because he had seen the same things in the hallucinations of his patients. I thought, hmm, I must not have expressed myself correctly. I didn't quite mean that perception was like hallucination! Then there was a very favorable review of my book by a behaviorist in the Skinnerian journal called theJournal of Experimental Analysis of Behaviorand I knew then, too, that I'd done something wrong because if the behaviorists liked it I was making a big mistake. So I had all of these things going around in my head that perhaps I hadn't quite got it right withCognitive Psychology. What was the point of saying perception was constructive if it always constructed exactly the correct thing? That seemed far-fetched. Then, of course I was listening to Gibson and all these ideas were around and so after a while I began, you might say, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat saying: He's right, what am I going to do now? Gibson is right!
FIGURE 2 Evening relaxation at the Ithaca, New York, home of Ulric Neisser. Counterclockwise: Neisser, John Roberts, Tom Toleno, Bob Shaw, Karin Lindhagen, Jenn Lee, Dave Lee (back to camera). Ecological Optics conference, Cornell University, 1970. Courtesy of Sverker Runeson.
FIGURE 3 James Gibson (left) and Julian Hochberg. Ecological Optics conference, Cornell University, 1970. Courtesy of Sverker Runeson.
Q.Was this conclusion coming to you really like a flash?
A. No, I'm exaggerating a little, that's a romantic way of putting it, but I thought about it a lot and I kept thinking: OK, he's right, I guess, the information is in the light, it has to be there, because where else are you going to get it. It has got to be there and if it's there, there's a sense in which you don't have to process it at least not in the way that I used to say “process.” But if he's right, what am I going to do about cognitive psychology? How can I reconcile cognitive psychology, as I knew it, with this theory of Jimmy Gibson's?
Q.Was this a true identity crisis for you?
A. I guess so. I don't want to make it overly dramatic. It didn't all happen at once, in some one moment, but it became clearer and clearer to me that there was a real contradiction between cognitive psychology as I had helped to establish it with my book, and what I have come to believe. You know at that time people were calling me the father of cognitive psychology and stuff like that and I had become so instantly famous. And now here I was no longer thinking that this was right. Not that everything in the book was wrong or that what I think now is wrong, but some of the framing material, the way I framed the whole problem, especially the first few pages, I thought was quite wrong. There was a real confusion because I wanted to be a Gibsonian ecological psychologist, I guess, although it wasn't quite so much of a movement then as it became later, but Jimmy was right about a lot of stuff. I thought then and I still think that he was wrong about a lot too; I thought his approach to memory just wouldn't work. He kept denying the existence of memory: he just called it expanded perception. Since perception is a process over time, there wasn't any place where perception stopped and memory began, so let's just talk about perception and you still see the perception that you had of your house when you were ten years old, whatever, it just didn't make a nickel's worth of sense to me. But when we were talking about genuine perception and movement produced information, one of the things that became very clear to me in those years thanks to Jimmy and the rest of the crew was how much of the information we use in perceiving is movement produced and how much it has to do with transformations and invariants of transformation and that kind of thing.
Q.To what degree were these ideas hypothetical? When you gradually started to accept these ideas to what degree did you see them as supported by evidence?
A. Oh no, it was really true! There's just no question that movement produced information is important for perception: shapes and layouts and stuff like that. There were a lot of experiments to prove it. I had become very suspicious of tachistoscopic presentation: flashing things, that's not the way we ordinarily perceive the world. Gibson helped me understand that. With movement produced information and perception occurring over time, the tachistoscope was not really a good instrument for presenting this kind of material. Nor was the computer, which in those days was functioning primarily like a tachistoscope. They were just devices for presenting flashes and recording reaction time. I had been here, I guess six years, from 1967 to 1973, and it was time for a sabbatical and it was my turn to go the Center for Advanced Study in Palo Alto. My idea had been that what I would do there was to write the second edition ofCognitive Psychology—my publisher was after another edition after the first one was a great success—and I started to do that. I wrote about a chapter or two, and it was just so boring, I couldn't do it. So I started to write this other, sort of much more speculative and irritable book, that becameCognition and Reality.
Q.What did you want to achieve with this book?
A. Well, I didn't finish it till I came back here, butCognition and Realitywas partly an attempt to recall my information processing colleagues to reality, saying that there is a whole world out there to look at. And partly it was a very conscious, deliberate effort to spend some of the credit I had accumulated in the way it would be useful to the Gibsonian view. As you know I had to clarify this stuff to cognitive psychologists. How would I explain to people these marvelous ideas that I learned from Jimmy so that people might listen to them? I was aware that I was doing that.
Q.Before we follow the impact of your book, let me ask how Gibson was perceived by his peers at the time.
A. Well, he had a funny dual identity, I had written about that in the obituary that I wrote for him, that appeared later in theAmerican Psychologist. He was simultaneously the most famous perception psychologist and the most disciplined. Everybody knew who Jimmy Gibson was, but people regarded him as having gone kind of crazy. Everybody, all the perceptionists had read the 1950 book,The Perception of the Visual Worldand by that time it had become, as Ed Reed later said very explicitly, it had become the common sense of the world of perception. You see he had this reputation for saying things like “information isn't processed” or “perception is direct” or “it's just stupid to worry about what the brain is doing” and things like that. People don't like to hear that, when the position he's attacking is their own and when he doesn't give the reason for the attack in any way that they could understand. So they thought he was some kind of kook. I guess this was the possibility I entertained when I first came here. So that was one of the aims ofCognition in Reality. But another aim was to see if I could work it out how Jimmy was right and I was right, too. Because there's still a lot of information processing, there's a whole theory of the perceptual cycle and the schema. I thought I could have it both ways. Then I could talk about the schema and the information processing, and also the Gibsonian information that's in the light and there's the activity—I thought it was pretty cute. Of course, both the Gibsons advised me strictly to stay away from schemas, saying those can get you nothing but trouble. I didn't believe that for a minute, so I did put that in—and that was fun. I think it had the effect I had hoped for. It made some people more interested in the ecological approach, but also people were thinking “Well, now Neisser is going crazy, too. There's two of them crazy out there!” Oh God, you should see some of the reviews I got, and that was a good sign.
Q.Did you expect this reaction?
A. Yes. I was pleased in many ways. I mean it's better to get a negative review from David Rumelhart than it is to get a positive review from some behaviorists, like to the previous book, I mean it's by your enemies that you really define yourself. It was alright. So, the book was done and I was sort of a Gibsonian. Not really a hundred percent Gibsonian, then or ever. I think that people in Storrs don't regard me as one of them. I'm definitely an outsider and I think in a certain theoretical sense, they don't trust me, because I'm not completely wholeheartedly committed to this whole enterprise. I started thinking about what I could do, that would be useful and interesting. There were a lot of people working on perception at that time, of course the Gibsons were working on perception and I started wondering, whether in some way I could do for memory what Jimmy did for perception.
Q.Let me ask you at this point about the role of Eleanor Gibson.
A. Yes, good. I'm glad you mentioned that. It kind of grew and grew. As I said we were always friends with the Gibsons, played cards with them and things like that. I thought when we first came to town that Jackie was suspicious of me as she was suspicious of almost everyone, because she had been so badly treated as a woman in a man's world. She had been really badly treated. People used to put her down a lot.
A. Yeah. You know when they first came she could only be a research associate. When the Gibsons arrived, they were told that there was a nepotism rule so that you couldn't have a husband and wife in the same department.
Q.How many women were there on the faculty?
A. Not many. I mean in psychology, there were probably none at that time. No, there was a woman, Pat Smith, who had some kind of a faculty position, but there also was some nepotism question. Jackie was doing research on the visual cliff, and research at the Behavior Farm and had become one of the most famous psychologists in America. Harry Levin became chair probably in 1966 and by his account, one of the first things he did was to call someone in central administration and ask them to send over a copy of this nepotism rule and it all turned out, there wasn't one. So, then he went back and he made her professor in a very short time. She was Professor, finally, by the time I got here. The situation has changed a lot with respect to the status of women in the academy and now men are more polite to women. They don't tell dirty jokes and they don't put them down and they don't make lots of remarks about cooking and things of this kind, that were routine. I think Jackie got to trust me after a while. As I say, when I first came she had the lab at the airport and she had a couple of very good students. That was good developmental work. Then, as soon as I got back from my sabbatical in 1974 we moved into this building [Uris Hall], with a lot of lab space. Jackie announced that she was going to set up an infant lab in the basement. That really captivated me because she had so many clever ideas, wonderful interesting ideas about the study of infancy, the study of perception in infancy and I saw, as many other people also saw, that this was a way of addressing questions philosophers have asked for centuries: What is knowledge? What do we learn? How do we learn it? What do babies first see when they perceive, is it a booming, buzzing confusion? And Jackie was going to solve these questions! Holy cow! It was great. I was really interested in it and very supportive. I never was very good at running babies, but I used to hang around there a lot. At that time Liz Spelke was here as my graduate student as well as Jackie's graduate student, except that Liz was never anybody's student. I don't think that's an appropriate description of the relation if it conjures up images of me telling Liz what to do. Sometimes I told her what to do but she didn't do it. What she did instead was always better. So, Liz Spelke was here. We did some interesting things, actually outside of the lab. Other people, Lorraine Bahrick and Arlene Walker came here and I really hung with that crowd a lot in addition to doing my own things. We even did a couple of infant experiments that I published—one on attention, on selective looking in infancy. I think it's still a very good experiment. I could only do them because Jackie had the infant lab and everything was set up. I presume you know how hard it is to run an infant lab and what level of organization it takes, taking care of the mothers and the babies and the scheduling, it's really a nightmare. That was all taken care of.
Q.How about James Gibson's experiments, what kind of experimental work did he have at that time, in the seventies?
A. He certainly had experiments at the airport. Gibson, Wheeler and Kaplan, the paper on the edge effect, the work on occlusion and disocclusion was done out there, the time I'm talking about is the late sixties.
Q.Was it the case that, in the seventies, Eleanor Gibson's experimental research attracted more people than Jimmy Gibson's?
A. In the sixties at the airport I would not have said that, I think it was a fully equal enterprise. They all shared their ideas and Jimmy was the more famous and the leader, I thought out there. That's how I viewed it. When we came here [Uris Hall] in 1974 to this building, Jimmy continued to give his Thursday seminars, to which I faithfully came.
Q.Would you describe these seminars?
A. Well, we just always talked about perception and Jimmy often had ideas. Often there were the “purple perils” to start the seminar. Those give you some idea to talk about; and all of us that were interested in perception, his graduate students and my graduate students, would come and we would talk.
Q.Other faculty members, too?
A. Yeah. I'm trying to think … I can't recall if Cutting was there. Maybe not, but I sure loved it, I thought it was just a lot of fun and I learned a lot about perception. He was of course writing his last book during those years. While this was going on, Jackie's infant lab was prospering. It was wonderful, a place where it seemed discoveries were being made every other day. I do mention some of the infant research inCognition and Reality, but it was not until afterwards that it began to look really large and I saw how important it was. In that period I realized that Jackie was a great psychologist. Before that I wouldn't have put her on the same footing, but now I see it differently, looking back now on the work on perceptual learning and the perceptual learning paper that she and Jimmy did together. Interesting isn't it, that they only did one paper together, in collaboration.
Q.Why did they not collaborate more often?
A. Well, Jackie was the one to preserve her independence. She had been Jimmy's student once, but she sure had her own work to do and her own ideas and they really complemented each other nicely: they read each other's papers and gave each other criticism, but they maintained their independence. I think they did it awfully well, I can't think that very many married couples that are both outstanding professionals have done any better.
Q.Well, let's get back to the reception of your second book.
A. Well it was not entirely negative and a lot of people liked that book. In fact, I had a new wave of people coming up to me at meetings saying that will change their life, which is always a nice feeling to have two books that do that. Let me contrast it in a different way. The thing aboutCognitive Psychologyin 1967 was that I was saying what everybody wanted to hear. I would get letters from people saying that they were so glad that I had given a name to the activity that they were already engaged in, like the guy that realized he had been speaking prose all his life.Cognition and Realitywas not like that, it was the opposite of that. It was things that nobody wanted to hear. So it didn't make as many converts, but it did make some converts. Then I began to work on memory. There are many ways you can characterize what Gibson's enterprise was all about. One of those ways and maybe the shallowest and least interesting, but one of those ways is, that he told people to do more ecologically valid experiments, that had more to do with the way perceiving occurred under natural circumstances. That's not really the deepest part of his contribution, but it was a fairly obvious part. I began wondering whether one could do something similar in memory. I began, it must have been in 1977, teaching a small undergraduate course here on something like memory under natural circumstances. At first, it was hard filling up the curriculum because there wasn't a whole lot of research, but we talked about things like that and I thought I was the only person who was interested in the naturalistic approach to memory. Then, to my complete surprise, I learned that there was going to be an international congress on this subject that I thought no one was interested in. The conference, in Cardiff, was the first “Practical Aspects of Memory” conference. I submitted a little paper, with a co-author friend, about people's judgments of their own memories. The conference organizers were very delighted that I was coming and asked me whether I would give the opening address. I did, and there was really a lot of bite in that opening address. All of a sudden I found myself famous again and that was sort of fun. Within a few years I put together a book calledMemory Observed, that you may have seen, which begins with that address and has a lot of other stuff, which is still being used. I keep intending to do a second edition of that. I just never find the time to do it. That was an idea whose time had come sort of the wayCognitive Psychologyhad been; here were all these people already doing their stuff and all they wanted was somebody to tell them what it was called and that it was right to do it. I was lucky a second time, to be in the right place at the right time. For the next two decades or so, that's really what I did: various kinds of ecological studies of memory. It's not nearly as theoretically interesting as anything that Gibson did, because I don't have, nobody has an ecologicaltheoryof memory. There can't really be one in quite the same sense as there's an ecological theory of perception, I think there can't. There's a lot of people doing ecological work on memory now, ecological in the sense of memory in everyday circumstances. In fact it's now really an accepted part of life.
Q.James Gibson died in 1979.
A. Jimmy died in 1979 and after that it was never the same here. I mean, it's not just that there weren't any more Thursday seminars, but his whole personality, his life that he infused the place with was gone. Jackie was still doing this wonderful work in the basement, the baby work. I was hanging in there with her, doing a little of it and encouraging her. We gave a seminar together, maybe twice, on perception and attention. But even though in a certain sense the place had grown cold. Our kids were pretty much grown up, so when Emory made me a big offer I decided to take it. Besides, at that time we wanted to get out of Ithaca because it was just a small town. We wanted to try a city. So I went to Atlanta and spent thirteen years there. Now I've been one year back here at Cornell, in Ithaca, and that's the end of the story.
Q.All right. You've mentioned it earlier, but would you expand on the question of what exactly you did not accept in Gibson's theory and why?
A. Jimmy Gibson didn't like any of the mental representations at all. He wanted perception and I think also other forms of cognition to be direct in the sense that the information is in the light and it's valid. You can rely on it and you can explore and get more of it and what you're aware of is considered the true facts, affordances and layout of the environment. You're not just aware of something that's in your head. It was really a fundamental philosophical point that he had, a quarrel with the whole direction that psychology had been going in, maybe since Descartes, and the whole direction that psychologists tend to believe, that what you're aware of is what's in your head. In a certain sense it is like hallucination. Jimmy rejected all that and therefore he rejected the notion of mental representation in all its forms: the notion that there was an inner world, an inner life that you couldn't examine. The people in Storrs, Turvey and Shaw and their collaborators also reject any form of mental representation. And I think they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What I think differently of is, of course there are mental representations: I need only to close my eyes now, I don't have to close my eyes, but suppose I close my eyes now and I imagine Jimmy Gibson sitting at the end of the table. There's something going on and it's not the information out in the light, you know. So, as long as you have images, as long as you have explicit memories, as long as you're aware of stuff, that's driven from within and not driven from without, you have got mental representations.
Q.So you think that the concept of representation is necessary in areas that are your research interests like memory and imagery. You mean we need a different conceptual apparatus to handle cognition and perception, respectively.
A. Yes, I used to do research on imagery. I'm interested in imagery still, and there just are mental representations. It's one thing to say you don't go through a mental representation stage when you perceive; OK, perception is direct, Jimmy, I'll go for that. But there's a lot in the human cognitive experience besides perception. There's thinking and remembering and planning and all kinds of stuff like that and those things are mental representations because they're not in the light, they're not like perception. Ed Reed wouldn't have liked this, because he thought he could generalize the Gibsonian ideas to memory and other forms of cognition and he tried it a couple of times but it never made sense to me. I've been interested for some years now in aspects of the self and I borrowed an idea from Gibson, maybe stole would be a better word. But I did give him credit, anywaytook, that's a better word, I took an idea from Gibson. Gibson argued that all perception is also self-perception and I started thinking about the self and how we know the “ecological self,” which is the one Gibson was talking about. I said there were other kinds including a “remembering self.” I organized, while I was at Emory, a series of conferences on different aspects of the self and Ed Reed came to the one on the “remembering self.” It was really good that he could come and say something about memory from the ecological point of view and it's in my book “The Remembering Self,” but I can't make head or tail out of what he said any more than I could make head or tail out of what Gibson had said a decade earlier. You can't manage memory and so-called higher mental processes with the same conceptual apparatus that you use to manage perception, in my view.
Q.You are calling the Storrs group Gibsonians, how about yourself, are you a Gibsonian?
A. Well yes, in certain contexts. I give you an example. Yesterday I got an e-mail from a publisher and they want me to review a book and the book is about perception. It is about how perception is not really of the world, but only its features that the nervous system extracts and whether I would like to review this book. I wrote, thanks, but no. As a Gibsonian and a perceptual realist, I would hate this book so much, judging by your description, that I couldn't give a sensible review. Ask so and so. They are closer to the author's assumptions. And he wrote me back a nice note saying thank you for being so honest. OK, but of course I'm not a Gibsonian in the sense of being affiliated with the Storrs group in any way. I still play that role that I set for myself inCognition in Realityof being a broker between Gibsonians and the rest of the cognitivists.
Q.You may not consider yourself “fully Gibsonian” but you do consider yourself part of this movement, don't you?
A. Yeah, I played a role in that group, I'm in it. I'm pleased to be in it. It changed my life, you know.
Q.To finish off with Gibson, let me ask you this big question: What do you think, what is his place in the history of psychology?
A. Well, I mean at minimum, his place is that of a very distinguished perceptual psychologist, who made many empirical discoveries and established many concepts that became the common coin in the field of perception. There's no doubt about that. What would be wonderful would be if he were the person who started a movement that really turned the field around, gave it new goals, made it see itself in a new way. That hasn't quite happened. I think the timing was bad. Ed Reed said something in his biography on Jimmy that I found very insightful: that in the 17th century a bargain was struck such that the real world belonged to the physicists and the mental world belonged to the psychologists, loosely speaking, of course. They didn't have those titles in those days. Psychologists have kept to that bargain and they've been told over and over again: “You have got to distinguish the physical from the psychological. It's the psychological you're interested in!” We were supposed to study what's inside and the physicists what's outside. Of course you see the mess the physicists have made of that: they tell us, that what's outside is a lot of empty space with electrical charges in it. What I learned from Ed Reed was that Gibson broke that compact. He wouldn't abide the terms of that treaty, insisted on talking about the outside as well, about the outside world. And people don't understand this readily, being so strongly educated into these divisions. Timing was wrong for Gibson, for there had been all these wonderful discoveries in neuroscience that are going on with brain imaging, but even before we got brain imaging it was clear that we were learning more and more about how the brain worked. So from that point of view it looks as if the bargain that was made in the 17th century was a good one. We were getting our share of it and we were really going to understand the mind and the brain. Who has got time for Gibson, with all that going on! So if he'd come along maybe a little earlier, or if our understanding of the brain and so on had been somewhat delayed, maybe his work would have received a better reception. At present people are just too busy, you might say. Maybe there are some stylistic problems, too. It might have helped if he hadn't gone around so often saying: “Information isn't processed and what you guys are doing is just beside the point” and then turned off his hearing aid. I mean it might have helped him, but I'm not sure it would have helped. I think if you've got way out ideas, you're going to have trouble having them accepted whether you are a nice guy about it or not. Another point is that although the enterprise seems vast from inside: the ecological enterprise has limitless ambition and wants to reformulate the way we see the whole world and the human place in the world—what is perceived, what is known, and how we think about those things. If you look at what they've actually accomplished, it's very small if you compare it to the scope of the field. I mean, here I am writing an article on ecological psychology for theEncyclopedia of Cognitive Science. I can use more words than they allowed me. OK, it's eleven pages. They've got a thousand pages, so we ecological psychologists mustn't kid ourselves that we're on the threshold of revolutionizing anything.
Q.How does Gibson compare to other psychologists who were associated with the label “ecological”?
A. I never thought Brunswik was a big deal. He was sort of interested in what was actually occurring in the world, maybe that was a big contribution, but I never thought it would be much, you know, compared to Gibson, who had started all this enterprise. His students, his empirical discoveries, his fundamental theoretical reorganization; Brunswik would never do anything like that. There are a couple of people who were using the word ecological in their work, like Roger Barker, but I don't think he's come to much. Maybe Urie Bronfenbrenner has a little more staying power. But maybe I only think that because I know him. He is at Cornell also. It's hard for me to know that, it's not my area. These guys aren't any great figures, just because they use the word ecological, Gibson is a giant compared to those. Reed compares him to Darwin a lot, which maybe is a little too much. Perhaps it's the enterprise that he's engaged in is really fundamental and radical in Darwin's sense, but he hasn't managed to revolutionize the field. We'll see what happens next. A number of Gibson's ideas, even ecological ideas are now generally accepted. For example, everybody is interested in movement produced information. But of course, what they do is they look to find the neurons and the visual systems that are triggered by it. A number of people are interested in occlusion and disocclusion, not just Gibsonians. The idea of the layout of the environment I've seen referred to quite a lot by non-Gibsonians. Maybe even the idea of affordances, although they're not well understood, but it's an idea that's spreading and may find a real place and may become an important part of the vocabulary of cognition in the next decade or so. I think that's all fairly likely to happen, but I don't think it will be accompanied by a sort of genuine revolution in the goals of psychology in the way that Gibson wanted. Sorry about that.
Q.The same as in memory, as you said, you wanted to do for memory what Gibson did for perception, but there was no theoretical revolution.
A. Yes, that's right. But I did something in that area. I managed to get a real good start for studying memory under natural conditions. A lot of people are doing that and that's Gibson's influence. But there isn't an underlying theory, an underlying changed kind of world view for memory that Gibson represented for perception. Once you start asking what's the information in the light instead of asking what mental representations are involved, that's a real shift, not just in method but in goal. Nothing as dramatic as that has happened in memory. You're not transforming the study of memory with that, you're just contributing to it. Whether it will ever happen, I don't know. We'll have to wait on somebody getting a better idea than I ever had about it.
Q.You have mentioned your “two systems” theory earlier, would you like to expand on what you mean by that?
A. Sometime in the eighties, I'm not sure when, I became aware of this claim, that seemed very weird and strange at that time, that there are two perceptual systems in fish and maybe in monkeys. They're called the “where” and the “what” systems. They're mediated by different parts of the brain. Monkeys in Mishkin's laboratory had learned all kinds of discriminations and when they damaged a ventral part of the visual system, they no longer could distinguish between stripes, cues for what they should reach for. Whereas when they did damage in the dorsal system, or the so called “where” system, the animal knew perfectly well which object was the correct one, but they reached in wrong directions and couldn't seem to find where it was. At first I thought this was weird, I guess this is the right word, why should there be two systems like this? Then, the more I thought about it the more interesting it became. I now believe that there are indeed two systems. I don't like calling them “where” and “what,” but two perceptual systems, almost in Gibson's old use of that term. One has to do with perceiving where things are, controlling actions toward them and perceiving affordances: that's the “where” system. The other has to do with recognizing, identifying and classifying. I've sometimes called this direct perception versus recognition. I've used those two terms for contrast. Conventional perceptual theorists go crazy when they hear the word “direct perception” and they go into a funk, so I can't call it that. I've tried various other things, most recently I decided I'll invent a name for it and make it hodological perception. Anyway, it's the system that Gibson was right about. The other system, the recognition system, is the one he was wrong about. He was right about direct perception in that there are really invariants in the light that specify the layout of the environment, that specify what's within reach. They specify all kinds of affordances. They specify self-movement and self-perception and they are invariant in the sense that there's always a particular structure in the light that is the way it is because the environment is the way it is and which you pick up on and act. Gibson was entirely right about those kinds of activities. On the other hand, if it comes to identifying something, to seeing that that's my copy of Gibson's book or that that's my car in the parking lot, you do it using all kinds of information. It's expectations, it's probabilistic stuff and of course we're often totally wrong about identifications and categorizations. Or sometimes we're wrong up until the very last minute, like I think that's my grey Toyota in the parking lot and then I get really close and I see that it's another grey Toyota. How do I know? Well, it's got a different license plate and besides, my sweater's not in the back. Identifying was always like that, it's this mish-mash. It really works very well with some sort of PDP neural net, where you just throw in these crappy elements. That's the “what” system, the recognition system. It's like that. There are mental representations, but not in the “where” system, not in the system that enables you to get around, but in the “what” system, which allows you to identify things.
Q.Now let's think a bit about ecological psychology as a scientific movement. What does it take to make a movement?
A. I guess there are all kinds of social groups and communities of interest in the scientific world. The thing gets to be a movement if the participants believe that they can and should expand and they have something to say to the larger world of which they are a part, if they feel kind of passionately about it, and to some extent if others recognize them as a separate movement. It is a little dicey whether that's an advantage or not. I know a very brilliant young psychologist who works on problems that could easily be described in terms of affordances and other Gibsonian language. She deliberately avoids using that language because she wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the developmental psychology establishment and so she uses terms like learning instead of using terms like affordances, although it's nearly the same thing. It was a deliberate choice on her part: not to affiliate too closely with the ecological movement. Scientists, especially nowadays, don't like movements. Of course when I grew up, psychology was still divided into boring schools and there would be Gestalt psychologists and psychoanalysts and this kind of stuff. That was the environment. One became a psychologist and then the question was which one he was going to affiliate with and then of course, everybody said, well, I'm not really affiliated with it. We really passed that point. Psychology is not like that anymore. It's not really a question of movements. In general, once a science is fairly well established, you don't so much have movements any more. You make discoveries, people interested in this field or that field, but you're not trying to overturn the whole apple cart. In presenting ecological psychology to the rest of the cognitive world, I mostly emphasize the hard discoveries that were made, and soften the movement aspect of it. What is important is empirical work. I think Turvey's research on movement and action control and the wonderful stuff on wielding rods and wielding your own arm and so on, that research is so good that it's really going to have a central place in anybody's account of the study of movement and control. Then there's infant research that was begun by Jackie Gibson, that I've said before, that has been very powerful and that gives the movement credibility there, in infancy. The perceptionists all know about it and now the motor control people know about it. That shows you in a way what has to happen. Bill Warren's stuff on optic flow is widely respected. These are just examples.
Q.Let's finish off with enlarging the picture into the future of psychology as a science. What place do you see for ecological psychology?
A. Well, I certainly think psychology is at a very difficult point in its development. Everybody is interested in the brain and the relation of the brain to experience, the relation of the brain to memory and the relation of the brain to perception. And besides the brain there's now the genes and everybody is interested in the relation of the genes to all these things. Discoveries are being made on these fronts, pretty much every week or two, if you read the papers. Of course the newspapers like to hype too much, but there really are discoveries being made all the time. That's what people are interested in and that's what they think real knowledge is. That doesn't leave much room for psychology. If you give a course in psychology on memory, people are very disappointed if you don't tell them where memory is in the brain. The neural basis, they think that's the real science. There already are places where, instead of a department of psychology, there's a department of brain science, a department of cognitive science or a department of cognitive and linguistic science. In any good department of psychology, including this one, people are raising questions: Maybe that's the way we ought to go, what else is there? What else there is, is the ecological analysis that complements research on the brain. Because people are in the world, you can't understand what people do, any of the perceiving or thinking or remembering or anything, you can't have any of it without understanding the environment as well as understanding the brain. The environment is just as real as the brain and ecological psychologists seem to be the only people who work that side of the street consistently and make discoveries there. I mean if you look at the discoveries of ecological psychology, that I listed in my encyclopedia article, none of them could have been made, or almost none of them could have been made by people who were studying the brain. The stuff they find out about isn't in the brain. It's out there in the light or in the physics of the environment. The way to give psychology a meaningful future, therefore may be to give it an ecological future, to break the compact, the 17th century compact about who owns the world or who owns the mind. Because if all we own is the mind, all we're going to be left with is the brain, but if we own a piece of the world too, of the real environment, we've got to study that and how people interact with it and what it affords for us and so on. That they can't find out in the brain, because it isn't there. So, at least in the abstract, I think that ecological psychology is sort of the future hope of psychology. That's what I think, I've tried to say that a couple of times in papers. It's hard to make it concrete, I don't really know what I mean for most of psychology to become ecological. I really don't know and if I knew, I'd say. But I certainly am worried about the future of psychology.
Q.Thank you very much.
September 10, 1997
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