– Kant’s point of view on perception, and specifically spatial perception, was that it was based on mostly innate processes and intuition. Helmholtz argued that while sensation may in fact be determined by innate intuition, perception rather was more determined by experience and learning. In fact he strategically regards all perception as through experience and showed this through experimentation in which he observed a process known as perceptual adaptation. In the experiment, he manipulated subjects’ vision through glasses that showed objects to be more to the right than they actually were. When the subjects were given time to gain experience with the objects, they were able to locate them by moving their hands a little to the left and could even perform this with their eyes closed. When they took the glasses off, they had issues locating the objects, until their vision reacclimated and they could locate them with ease again.
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Helmholtz argues that this process of perceptual adaptation is so fast and well learned that it must be an unconscious experience that appears innate, but is in fact learned through experience. One example that I have observed of perceptual adaptation is an optical illusion known as the American flag optical illusion (I highly recommend looking it up!). What happens is if you stare at an image of the American flag with inverted colors (black yellow and blue) for a few seconds and then stare at a blank wall, you will see the afterimage of the American flag with the correct (red white and blue) colors. However after a few seconds of looking, the image disappears. I wonder what Helmholtz would think if he experienced this optical illusion! The answer lies within the perceptual adaptation of the rods and cones. It would also be interesting to see how people within this time period understood how color blindness occurs and how that would influence their ideas of sensation and perception. What do you think such a phenomenon would shape their understanding? Do you think that the differences in perception between someone who is color blind and who is not will point towards an experience-driven understand rather than innate understanding?