2.3 What is Visual Perception? – Definition & Theory

Jan 12, 2020 | ch2 Perception & Sensation, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

In this lesson, we’ll explore visual perception, touching upon the top-down and bottom-up theories of perception by looking at scenarios we experience on an everyday basis.

Visual Perception

Take a look at this image. Which line looks longer to you, A or B? Most people may say B looks longer, simply because the points are facing in, rather than out. However, these lines are exactly the same length, which you’d see if you used a ruler to measure them. There’s a reason why this occurs, and that is what we’ll look at in this lesson.


Visual perception is the ability to see, organize, and interpret one’s environment. In our example, your eyes ‘took in’ the lines as well as the points on the ends of the lines. At the same time, your brain was organizing and making sense of the image. This is a very important process because it gives us the ability to learn new information. Without visual perception, you would not be able to make sense of the words on a page, recognize common objects, or have the eye-hand coordination required for many daily tasks.

Top-Down Processing

One theory of visual perception is called top-down processing, where we use our own knowledge and expectations to influence what we see. According to this theory, we draw on our understanding of a concept in order to make sense of the individual components.

For example, at first glance, many people would probably see these two words as ‘the cat’, but after closer inspection, we can see that the second word is not really a word at all. It says ‘CHT’. Because our brains have an expectation of what we will read, we skipped right over the fact that it said CHT instead of CAT. The top-down processing model explains why we’re able to look at and understand new information quickly: we use our previous experiences to help us learn new information. For instance, this theory explains why we know what a bus is and whether it’s a school bus, a public transportation bus, or a double decker bus. We understand the concept of a bus, so when we see a new color or kind of bus, we know that it’s still a bus.

Bottom-Up Processing

The second theory of visual processing is called bottom-up processing, where we use our understanding of the individual components of a concept to understand the whole. For example, in order to learn how to drive a car, you have to know how to push down on the brake and accelerator pedals, shift gears, turn the wheel, and use the mirrors. You also have to know when and how to use a turn signal to switch lanes. In addition to driving a car, you use visual perception to understand road signs and signals. Once you understand all of the operations related to driving, you can use them to master the larger concept of driving a car. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to drive if you only knew how to turn the car on, but not shift the gears.

Learning to drive is an example of bottom-up processing, because you put the component skills together in order to master the overall skill of driving.


Lesson Summary

Visual perception allow us to see, organize, and interpret things in our everyday environment. These skills help us learn new information. According to the top-down processing theory of visual perception, we use previously learned information to understand a whole concept. Reading is one example of top-down processing, and the reason why we tend to read the word CAT instead of CHT in this image:

By comparison, the bottom-up processing theory says that we understand a concept’s individual components before we understand the whole. As illustrated in the driving example, we learn to drive by combining our understanding of the different operations and parts involved.

2.4 The Importance of Visual Perception in Cognitive Processes
2.2 What are the Stages of Perception?