What is Perceptual Learning?

Donn Saylor

Perceptual learning is a style of improving perceptual tasks as the result of repeated experiences; auditory, olfactory, tactile, taste, and visual learning can all be enhanced by this approach. The principle aim of perceptual learning is to enable individuals to better respond to their environments. There are four main methods involved in this type of perception enhancement: attention weighting, differentiation, imprinting, and unitization.

Visual perception is key in a child's ability to dress herself, as well as many other tasks.
Visual perception is key in a child's ability to dress herself, as well as many other tasks.

The process of perceptual learning was one of the first behavioral concepts to receive significant attention and research. Documentation reaches as far back as the 19th century, when experiments with tactile stimuli were conducted. The psychologist and philosopher William James played an important role in the furthering of perceptual learning studies. He placed great value on experience and deduced that his experiences were a result of stimuli he chose to pay attention to. This idea is the groundwork for all perceptual learning practices and is central to the four-fold methods of modern perceptual learning.

In perceptual learning, attention weighting entails making a distinction between relevant and irrelevant stimuli. By identifying these types of signals, individuals are able, over time, to turn their attention more naturally to important stimuli and ignore what is not important. An aspect of this involves differentiating between one signal in two different situations; in one setting, a signal may be considered relevant, but in another setting, it may be viewed as unnecessary. Distinguishing between the two is an important component of attention weighting.

The differentiation aspect of perceptual learning consists of developing knowledge regarding delineation, categorizing, and identifying differing dimensions of stimuli. By dividing signals into appropriate categories, differentiation makes for overall improved understanding and processing. An example of this would be mathematical problems, a form of stimuli that requires a breakdown, classification, and labeling of numbers and their functions.

Imprinting is the act of training psychological receptors to respond to certain signals. This action, when repeated, encourages faster, more fluent processing of stimuli. The receptors are developed over time, and the mind is then imprinted with ingrained responses to specified signals.

In the unitization phase of perceptual learning, tasks that may have previously entailed several detailed steps are now condensed into one step. For instance, words and sentences may be learned individually as part of a set of larger information. When the information needs to be recalled, unitization ensures it is recalled as a whole set of data, not just a jumble of disparate words and sentences.

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Discussion Comments


Sometimes, when someone says something mean, inappropriate or strange to me, I freeze up. I have thoughts but I'm unable to communicate them quickly. Does this have to do with my perceptual learning? Why do my my psychological receptors not respond well to these signals? And how can I approve it?


@literally45-- That's an interesting question. I'm not an expert on this topic but I think that it's probably both.

I have read that our mind can process a limited amount of information at once. So we do have to prioritize between the information we perceive and determine what is important and what is not. Doing this also helps us use the information more wisely in ways that are beneficial for our goals.

So both of these go hand in hand when it comes to perceptual learning.


When we identify relevant information from irrelevant information, do we do this because it's more efficient or because our mind cannot handle too much information at once and has to prioritize?

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