Perception: Theory, Development and Organisation. Paul Rookes, Jane Willson. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 2000. Pages: 160. Price: $39.95 (hardback), $14.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-415-19093-2 (hardback), 0-415-19094-0 (paperback).
FIGURE One of my advisors used to make fun of me because I had the habit of carrying a large stack of books around while preparing for an exam. He remarked that he had never seen a student doing so much intellectual weightlifting. I actually felt bad for not being smart enough to understand the topic from the designated textbook. I would usually read one book for the lucid historical introduction, consult another for the clear illustrations, yet another for the concise summary of the key points, etc. After a while, every book in my collection had a certain role, and I knew which one to consult for a particular topic. Since the book under review, Perception: Theory, Development and Organisation, is targeted at students, I read it with a particular question in mind. What role would this book have played for me when I started to learn about visual perception?
Although the title only uses the generic term perception, the book is entirely about visual perception because the authors argue that it is the most important and most intensely studied modality. Rookes and Willson have organized their short textbook in five core chapters. They start with a brief introductory chapter that first distinguishes between sensation and perception and then describes the physiology of the visual system from the eye to the visual cortex. The next chapter dives right into a description of theories of visual perception: ecological (Gibson), constructivist (Helmholtz, Gregory), synthetic (Neisser) and computational (Marr). This is the point where I probably would have flipped open another book. Before the phenomena of vision have been laid out and the reader is made fully aware of the facts that need to be explained, a confusing array of explanations are already presented and immediately criticized.
The subsequent chapter deals with the issue of perceptual organization or how we see a coherent three-dimensional world from the jumble of ever changing two-dimensional patterns of light that hit our retinas. Rookes and Willson discuss the Gestalt principles, and I remember my bewilderment as a student that these were presented as laws, although they were not really laws, and also did not explain very much, but were nevertheless worth discussing. This is not meant as a critique of Rookes and Willson; they describe clearer examples than in most texts and carefully lay out the problems with the Gestalt approach. I am merely empathizing with the student that has just gone through a chapter on preliminary theories about phenomena that are not quite clear yet and now has to read about principles. The remainder of the chapter on perceptual organization discusses depth cues, illusions, object recognition, and motion perception. Although sketchy at times, the material comes alive through clear examples.
In my view, the real strength of the book is in the next two chapters. Rookes and Willson discuss the development of perceptual abilities and the variations in those abilities due to individual, social, and cultural differences. What I think will appeal to students is that these chapters are light on theory and loaded with concrete examples of visual abilities that give a good sense of the phenomena under study. They also carefully explain the methodological problems that are connected to investigating what babies or nonhuman animals see or what you can ask human observers about their perception. The discussion on cultural differences shows how careful one has to be in interpreting the answers.
An additional chapter is called Study Aids and is specifically meant for A-level students in Britain. This brings me to a curious fact about this book. Although it is simultaneously published in the UK, the U.S., and Canada, it is really targeted to students who are preparing for their A-level exams. I do not expect the general reader to know what A-levels are, and I did not know until a British friend explained it to me. These are exams that 18-year-old students have to take to finish high school and earn the right to enter a university-level education, comparable to the American SAT exams. This might be an example of the general difference in style between American and British textbooks. The American textbook starts at a low level and spells out all the material at the Hollywood level (the guy dressed in black is the bad guy), whereas the British seem to subscribe to an insiders style where you have to be in the know.
This nice little book would have earned a place in my stack, but as a first year student, I would have only enjoyed the chapters on development and perceptual differences. At a later stage I would have used the chapters on perceptual theories and organization as concise summaries of the most important facts, to be read a day before the exam.