Ulric Richard Gustav Neisser (1928-) began his undergraduate studies at Harvard interest-
ed in physics, but shifted to psychology and earned his B.A. in 1950. He studied with
Wolfgang Kölher at Swarthmore and received an M.A. before returning to Harvard where
he earned his Ph.D. in 1956. He taught at Brandeis University and Emory University and is
currently a professor in the Cognitive Studies Program at Cornell University. Neisser re-
mains interested in memory, intelligence, and self-concepts, with recently coauthored
articles including “Language-dependent Recall of Autobiographical Memories” (Journal of
Experimental Psychology 129:361–368) and “Are Young Infants Sensitive to Interpersonal
Contingency?” (Infant Behavior and Development, 21:355–366).
It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a hypothesis about localization of function, the statement is not quite right—the brain and not the eye is surely the most important organ involved. Nevertheless it points clearly enough toward the central problem of cognition. Whether beautiful or ugly or just conveniently at hand, the world of experience is produced by the man who experiences it.
This is not the attitude of a skeptic, only of a psychologist. There certainly is a real world of trees and people and cars and even books, and it has a great deal to do with our experiences of these objects. However, we have no direct, immediate access to the world, nor to any of its properties. The ancient theory of eidola, which supposed that faint copies of objects can enter the mind directly, must be rejected. Whatever we know about reality has been mediated, not only by the organs of sense but by complex systems which interpret and reinterpret sensory information. The activity of the cognitive systems results in—and is integrated with—the activity of muscles and glands that we call “behavior.” It is also partially—very partially—reflected in those private experiences of seeing, hearing, imagining, and thinking to which verbal descriptions never do full justice.
Physically, this page is an array of small mounds of ink, lying in certain positions on the more highly reflective surface of the paper. It is this physical page which Koffka (1935) and others would have called the “distal stimulus,” and from which the reader is hopefully acquiring some information. But the sensory input is not the page itself; it is a pattern of light rays, originating in the sun or in some artificial source, that are reflected from the page and happen to reach the eye. Suitably focused by the lens and other ocular apparatus, the rays fall on the sensitive retina, where they can initiate the neural processes that eventually lead to seeing and reading and remembering. These patterns of light at the retina are the so-called “proximal stimuli.” They are not the least bit like eidola. One-sided in their perspective, shifting radically several times each second, unique and novel at every moment, the proximal stimuli bear little resemblance to either the real object that gave rise to them or to the object of experience that the perceiver will construct as a result.
Visual cognition, then, deals with the processes by
From Ulric Neisser, “The Cognitive Approach” and “A Cognitive Approach to Memory and Thought.” In Cognitive Psychology
(pp. 3–11, 279–305). New York: Meredith 1967.