Monday 28 September 2015

The Interface Theory of Perception - The View from Ecological Psychology

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review has released, with much fanfare and a hashtag, an article called 'The Interface Theory of Perception' (Hoffman, Singh & Prakash, 2015). From the website description:
In a nutshell, interface theory postulates that our perception operates like a species-specific desktop: We perceive the world in representations that do not represent the “truth” about the world as it actually is, but that are useful “icons” which represent fitness-relevant information about the world. To illustrate, imagine a world in which red and green berries are nutritious but blue and yellow berries make you sick. Will your perceptual system differentiate red from green and blue from yellow? According to interface theory, the answer is no—the organism will have evolved to differentiate between only two colors, namely gred and byellue.
The meat of the paper is a series of evolutionary simulations that pit various perceptual strategies against one another. These strategies vary in how veridical they are, and the key result is that interface strategies, in which perception codes things in a way that bears no resemblance to the world, wins every time. We do not perceive the world as it really is. 

This seems to go against people like Gibson, who argue that perception is of a real world and real properties of things, like affordances. These simulations seem to show that 'realist' perceptual strategies are evolutionarily unsustainable. 

The devil, as always, is in the details, and having read the paper I am now pretty sure that Gibson is quite safe, and that information offers a path out of the weirdness Hoffman conjures.