Gibson, one of the most important theorists and researchers in visual perception of the twentieth century, was born in Ohio in 1904 and died in New York in 1979. He received his first degree (1925), masters (1926) and PhD (1928, in memory and learning) from Princeton. During, and in the years after, the Second World War (1942-9) he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the US Army Air Force and was director of the Motion Picture Research Unit, part of the US Aviation Psychology Program that was responsible for developing visual aptitude tests and training films for pilots.
Pilots cannot rely on internal systems (e.g. the vestibular system) to establish their orientation due to the effects of G-forces, which caused Gibson to focus on how the visual characteristics of the ground were used by the visual system to establish orientation, speed and direction of movement. This focus on environmental cues was to be a defining element of his later research and theories. Although textbooks have often classified Gibson as being a 'bottom-up' cognitive theorist, this is an inaccurate description as Gibson's work did not concern itself with the information processing paradigm, although it certainly did concentrate on the wealth of external information available.
Gibson was heavily critical of many existing perspectives in psychology, including behaviourism, the Gestalt school and the psychological sciences - which he saw as offering an incoherent and insignificant account of perception. Instead of a pre-occupation with abstract, static stimuli used in laboratory settings, Gibson believed that it was necessary to study the perception of real, moving objects perceived by a moving observer in the real world. He developed theories, culminating in his 1979 book 'The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception', of how the information present in the environment (e.g. the 'flow' patterns caused by movement of the observer) could be used to guide interaction with the world about us. For Gibson, this interaction was the goal of the perceptual system, rather than simply recognising an object which was the focus of most other research. This lead to his development of a theory of 'direct perception', and to his suggestion that cognitive processing and prior knowledge of the environment were not necessary in order to interact with it, but that instead objects 'afforded' their use through visual characteristics which could be picked up directly from the environment. Although other researchers in visual perception have been critical of Gibson's idea of 'affordance', there is no denying the impact of his work, particularly in demonstrating the interaction between perception and action, the importance of movement and the wealth of information present in the real environment.
In recognition of his contributions to psychology Gibson received many honours, including the Howard Crosby Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists (1952), being elected president of the Eastern Psychological Association (1959), receiving the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association (1961), and being elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1967).
Written by: Graham Pike