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Andy Yang 1

Perception Study

What You See is What Youve Learned Turnbull (1961)


Colin Turnbull was an anthropologist who had worked in a dense forest of present-day Congo to
study a native group. In this particular study, the question of whether perception is an innate or
learned ability, part of the age-old and continuing debate of nature vs. nurture, was addressed.
Perception is the selection, organization and interpretation of sensations, which include all the
external stimuli and sensory information one receives from the world. In order to form
perceptions effectively, the brain employs various strategies, such as figure-ground perception,
which is discerning between the foreground object and the background, and perceptual constancy,
awareness that objects stay the same even if their image changes. Most of us possess size constancy,
as we know that an object far away looks smaller but is larger in actuality. But, can it be possible to
not develop that ability?
Turnbull accompanied one participant named Kenge, a native from the BaMbuti tribe, whom he
studied through naturalistic observation, meaning that unlike lab experiments, the setting for this
study was natural and they went about their business as usual, without deliberately doing anything
artificial. Kenge had spent his whole life in the jungle, and was used to the densely packed trees of
his environment. Turnbull drove to the mountains with him, which Kenge had never seen before.
Interesting stuff was about to happen. Seeing the mountains from a distance, Kenge asked if they
were clouds or hills. A thunderstorm prevented Kenge from seeing what the mountains looked
like as they moved closer to them in the car. When they arrived at the mountain, Kenge was
amazed, as it was a sight which he hasnt experienced. He believed that the snow caps were a rock
formation. As he looked out toward the plains and saw roaming buffaloes in the distance,
incredibly he thought they were insects. Turnbull tried to convince him that those were large
animals, but he did not believe him. So, Turnbull drove him toward the buffaloes to show him
what they looked like close up. As they approached the buffaloes, Kenge saw that they were getting
larger by the minute told Turnbull this was sorcery. He could not understand why the tiny
creatures he saw got bigger. Later, when they drove near a lake, Kenge questioned the ability of a
boat he saw a few miles away to carry people. Turnbull reminded him that the buffaloes were also
bigger than he thought, which enlightened him. Kenge became less skeptical of reality as he
adjusted his perception to adapt to the world outside of the jungle.
Kenge was an example of an individual who did not develop size constancy. In the forest
environment he grew up in, the field of vision does not exceed a hundred feet, due to trees always
being in the way. So before Turnbull showed him the outside world, Kenge never learned that
things look smaller from far away he never saw anything from far away. This is proof that
perception constancy is a result of experience; it is a learned ability rather than innate. Only traits
necessary for survival are developed. In this case, size constancy was not applicable to Kenges
environment. Instead, Kenge may have particularly sharp figure-ground perception, from the need
to spot deadly creatures lurking around camouflaged in the backgrounds.

Andy Yang 2
Perception Study

Turnbulls short study inspired later research, such as Blakemores kitten experiments, which
showed with horizontal and vertical lines that cats only responded to what they were used to seeing.
Opposing studies existed, too, showing newborns distinguishing between color and gray. The
general consensus is that perceptual ability is neither completely learned, nor totally innate. More
research is expected to be done on this area for the future.