In philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information. The word "perception" comes from the Latin words perceptio, percipio and means "receiving, collecting, action of taking possession, apprehension with the mind or senses."

Perception is one of the oldest fields in psychology. The oldest quantitative law in psychology is the Weber-Fechner law, which quantifies the relationship between the intensity of physical stimuli and their perceptual effects. The study of perception gave rise to the Gestalt school of psychology, with its emphasis on holistic approach.

What one perceives is a result of interplays between past experiences, including one's culture and the interpretation of the perceived. If the percept does not have support in any of these perceptual bases it is unlikely to rise above perceptual threshold.


Two types of consciousness are considerable regarding perception: phenomenal (any occurrence that is observable and physical) and psychological. The difference everybody can demonstrate to him- or herself is by the simple opening and closing of his or her eyes: phenomenal consciousness is thought, on average, to be predominately absent without sight. Through the full or rich sensations present in sight, nothing by comparison is present while the eyes are closed. Using this precept, it is understood that, in the vast majority of cases, logical solutions are reached through simple human sensation. The analogy of Plato's Cave was coined to express these ideas.

Passive perception (conceived by René Descartes) can be surmised as the following sequence of events: surrounding input (senses) processing (brain) output (re-action). Although still supported by mainstream philosophers, psychologists and neurologists, this theory is nowadays losing momentum. The theory of active perception has emerged from extensive research of sensory illusions, most notably the works of Richard L. Gregory. This theory, which is increasingly gaining experimental support, can be surmised as dynamic relationship between "description" (in the brain) senses surrounding, all of which holds true to the linear concept of experience.

Perceiving involves more than the reception of stimuli from the five senses. Perceptions result when a person gives meaning to sensations. People base their actions on the way they believe things to be. The experienced aviation maintenance technician, for example, perceives an engine malfunction quite differently than does an inexperienced student. Real meaning comes only from within a person, even though the perceptions which evoke these meanings result from external stimuli. The meanings which are derived from perceptions are influenced not only by the individual's experience, but also by many other factors. Knowledge of the factors which affect the perceptual process is very important to the aviation instructor because perceptions are the basis of all learning.

Factors which affect perception

There are several factors that affect an individual's ability to perceive. Some are internal to each person and some are external.

1. Physical organism

2. Basic need

3. Goals and values

4. Self-concept

5. Time and opportunity

6. Element of threat

Physical Organism

The physical organism provides individuals with the perceptual apparatus for sensing the world around them. Pilots, for example, must be able to see, hear, feel and respond adequately while they are in the air. A person whose perceptual apparatus distorts reality is denied the right to fly at the time of the first medical examination.

Basic Need

A person's basic need is to maintain and enhance the organized self. The self is a person's past, present and future combined; it is both physical and psychological. A person's most fundamental, pressing need is to preserve and perpetuate the self. All perceptions are affected by this need.

Just as the food one eats and the air one breathes become part of the physical self, so do the sights one sees and the sounds one hears become part of the psychological self. Psychologically, we are what we perceive. A person has physical barriers which keep out those things that would be damaging to the physical being, such as blinking at an arc weld or flinching from a hot iron. Likewise, a person has perceptual barriers that block those sights, sounds and feelings which pose a psychological threat.

Helping people learn requires finding ways to aid them in developing better perceptions in spite of their defense mechanisms. Since a person's basic need is to maintain and enhance the self, the instructor must recognize that anything that is asked of the student which may be interpreted by the student as imperiling the self will be resisted or denied. To teach effectively, it is necessary to work with this life force.

Goals and Values

Perceptions depend on one's goals and values. Every experience and sensation which is funneled into one's central nervous system is colored by the individual's own beliefs and value structures. Spectators at a ball game may see an infraction or foul differently depending on which team they support. The precise kinds of commitments and philosophical outlooks which the student holds are important for the instructor to know, since this knowledge will assist in predicting how the student will interpret experiences and instructions.

Goals are also a product of one's value structure. Those things which are more highly valued and cherished are pursued; those which are accorded less value and importance are not sought after.


Self-concept is a powerful determinant in learning. A student's self-image, described in such terms as confident and insecure, has a great influence on the total perceptual process. lf a student's experiences tend to support a favorable self-image, the student tends to remain receptive to subsequent experiences. lf a student has negative experiences which tend to contradict self-concept, there is a tendency to reject additional training.

A negative self-concept inhibits the perceptual processes by introducing psychological barriers which tend to keep the student from perceiving. They may also inhibit the ability to properly implement that which is perceived. That is, self-concept affects the ability to actually perform or do things unfavorable. Students who view themselves positively, on the other hand, are less defensive and more receptive to new experiences, instructions and demonstrations.

Time and Opportunity

It takes time and opportunity to perceive. Learning some things depends on other perceptions which have preceded these learnings and on the availability of time to sense and relate these new things to the earlier perceptions. Thus, sequence and time are necessary.

A student could probably stall an airplane on the first attempt, regardless of previous experience. Stalls cannot really be learned, however, unless some experience in normal flight has been acquired. Even with such experience, time and practice are needed to relate the new sensations and experiences associated with stalls in order to develop a perception of the stall. In general, lengthening an experience and increasing its frequency are the most obvious ways to speed up learning, although this is not always effective. Many factors, in addition to the length and frequency of training periods, affect the rate of learning. The effectiveness of the use of a properly planned training syllabus is proportional to the consideration it gives to the time and opportunity factor in perception.

Element of Threat

The element of threat does not promote effective learning. In fact, fear adversely affects perception by narrowing the perceptual field. Confronted with threat, students tend to limit their attention to the threatening object or condition. The field of vision is reduced, for example, when an individual is frightened and all the perceptual faculties are focused on the thing that has generated fear.

Flight instruction provides many clear examples of this. During the initial practice of steep turns, a student pilot may focus attention on the altimeter and completely disregard outside visual references. Anything an instructor does that is interpreted as threatening makes the student less able to accept the experience the instructor is trying to provide. It adversely affects all the student's physical, emotional and mental faculties.

Learning is a psychological process, not necessarily a logical one. Trying to frighten a student through threats of unsatisfactory reports or reprisals may seem logical, but is not effective psychologically. The effective instructor can organize teaching to fit the psychological needs of the student. If a situation seems overwhelming, the student feels unable to handle all of the factors involved and a threat exists. So long as the student feels capable of coping with a situation, each new experience is viewed as a challenge.

A good instructor realizes that behavior is directly influenced by the way a student perceives and perception is affected by all of these factors. Therefore, it is important for the instructor to facilitate the learning process by avoiding any actions which may inhibit or prevent the attainment of teaching goals. Teaching is consistently effective only when those factors which influence perceptions are recognized and taken into account.


Insight involves the grouping of perceptions into meaningful wholes. Creating insight is one of the instructor's major responsibilities. To ensure that this does occur, it is essential to keep each student constantly receptive to new experiences and to help the student realize the way each piece relates to all other pieces of the total pattern of the task to be learned.

As an example, during straight-and-level flight in an airplane with a fixed-pitch propeller, the RPM will increase when the throttle is opened and decrease when it is closed. On the other hand, RPM changes can also result from changes in airplane pitch attitude without changes in power setting. Obviously, engine speed, power setting, airspeed and airplane attitude are all related.

True learning requires an understanding of how each of these factors may affect all of the others and, at the same time, knowledge of how a change in any one of them may affect all of the others. This mental relating and grouping of associated perceptions is called insight.

Insight will almost always occur eventually, whether or not instruction is provided. For this reason, it is possible for a person to become an electrician by trial and error, just as one may become a lawyer by reading law. Instruction, however, speeds this learning process by teaching the relationship of perceptions as they occur, thus promoting the development of the student's insight.

As perceptions increase in number and are assembled by the student into larger blocks of learning, they develop insight. As a result, learning becomes more meaningful and more permanent. Forgetting is less of a problem when there are more anchor points for tying insights together. It is a major responsibility of the instructor to organize demonstrations and explanations and to direct practice, so that the student has better opportunities to understand the interrelationship of the many kinds of experiences that have been perceived. Pointing out the relationships as they occur, providing a secure and nonthreatening environment in which to learn and helping the student acquire and maintain a favorable self-concept are key steps.

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