Human Perception and Environmental Experience

This post talks about human perception and its interplay with the environment. It demonstrates, in the context of cognitive mapping, how experiences and situations changes our perception of an object or a space. It also introduces the theory of affordances. We tend to see nature and humans as separate, but are they really?

Psychological map of Paris.
Referenced in: Milgram, Stanley and Denise Jodelet. 1970.

Stanley Milgram and Denise Jodelet “Psychological Maps of Paris” [1970]

Kevin Lynch “The City Image & Its Elements” [1960]

James J. Gibson “Theory of Affordances” [1979]

Robert Sommer “Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis for Design” [1969]

Guy Debord “Theory of the Derive” and “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation” [1958]

Perception describes the multiple ways in which people receive information from their surroundings, allowing them to know their environment. Cognition, or the way people understand the environment, occurs through immediate sensory experience coupled with memories and experiences from the past. While psychologists often treat these as different phenomena or faculties, the papers in this section challenge that bifurcation. Psychological studies of perception and cognition look at how we organize, identify, and interpret information through our senses. Other experiments, including projects by artists and designers, have shed light on how we attach meaning to particular places and spaces. Ecological psychology and other interdisciplinary research has demonstrated that human beings and their environments are produced in relation with one another. In this way, knowledge and experience are situated in the interplay between person and environment. Specific places and moments generate particular knowledge and experiences; previous experiences shade understandings and lead people to recognize particular things or respond in specific ways.

Traditionally, the environment was thought of as the context for or container of human activity, and many areas of psychology have proceeded as if what is “out there” in the environment is perceived by humans “in” our brains. However, John Dewey’s (1896) landmark critique of the reflex arcdenied the separation between external stimulus and internal response by showing the interrelatedness of events, environments, people, and actions. By the mid- 20th century, psychologist Kurt Lewin’s (1997 [1943]) concept of the lifespace described how elements of the environment make up a sort of force field within which people live their lives. Lewin felt that the social and physical environment or field—borrowing from the Gestalt psychological framework—is dynamic and changes over time, across spaces, and with experience; as such, people change over time as well. In effect, people and space are connected and co-produce one another rather than exist as distinct, autonomous entities. In this section we have included other classics in this area of research that have further probed the relationship between people and environment through questions of perception and experience.

Where there is space, we make maps to define and navigate it. Beyond books, charts, and global positioning systems (GPS) that people frequently rely upon, human beings possess preconceived cognitive maps of many of the spaces they often traverse and which let us move through the world. The concept of cognitive mapping describes the process human beings use to think about space and the ways in which they reflect and act upon those thoughts in their everyday behaviors (Tolman 1948). In their selection, psychologists Stanley Milgram and Denise Jodelet asked participants to make hand-drawn maps—a technique termed mental mapping—in order to glean the cognitive maps Parisians have of Paris (see figure at the beginning of Section 2). This work revealed how these maps steer our actions, and speak to the deeper synchronic processes by which we receive and process knowledge. Their work displaced the idea of fixed mental maps as representations in the minds of individuals with a much more socially and culturally embedded psychological map that varies when elicited through different procedures. Milgram and Jodelet found that major elements of the city emerged and project participants linked these elements together through their everyday experiences, as well as through social representations of places that might not even be part of a particular person’s daily experience.

The ability to inform design is often limited to architects, engineers, and designers, but who knows the city better than its residents? Urban planner Kevin Lynch was the first to employ the method of mental mapping in order to design cities from the perspectives of the citizens who live in them. Rather than focusing on what is inside a person’s head, he focused on the elements of the environment that allowed a person to navigate and remember the city. Based on individual interviews and mental maps of residents of three US cities—Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles—he outlines five key characteristics of the urban environment: paths, nodes, landmarks, edges, and districts. For Lynch, this research on the mental markers of urban dwellers suggested that the design and planning of urban spaces should be based on people’s experience and the ways in which the city could be more legible. In his book The Image of the City, he describes legibility as the quality of an environment to offer inhabitants clues about where they are and what they can do.

Yet social representations of Paris and mental maps of Boston are different from an individual’s immediate visual perception. One of the most seemingly simple yet truly profound theoretical contributions to the work on visual perception is the theory of affordances developed by psychologist James J. Gibson. Affordances are the qualities of an object or environment that allow or afford an individual to perform an action or series of actions. For example, a bowl can afford eating for an adult, but it may also be perceived as a drum or hat by a child, thereby affording other uses. Applications of this theory of affordances today relate not only to analyzing the physical environments of inhabitation, but also in efforts opposing environmental degradation, as the question shifts from the narrow industrial perspective of what the environment can do for us to a more sustainable understanding of environmental affordances.

Both individual perception and social experience inform psychologist Robert Sommer’s notion of personal space. Personal space is the immediate area surrounding a person that is psychologically regarded as one’s own. Often conceived of as a bubble around an individual, it is a form of portable territory that can shift in size and proportion based on situation. Such space is intrinsically tied to what anthropologist Edward Hall (1966) termed proxemics, i.e., the study of human relations in layers of proximity based on levels of intimacy. Sommer extends Hall’s discursive arguments by looking at where our material comfort zones begin and end to understand our spatial preferences. In his initial studies, described in the included selection, Sommer and his colleagues investigated spatial distances related to psychological comfort through studies of situations where researchers intentionally intruded into other people’s spaces. These invasions produced varied responses, and led Sommer to conclude that there are both psychological needs and social conventions at play in human spatial interactions.

Guy Debord, a social theorist and member of a group called the Situationists, wanted to introduce a more radical way of navigating the city and sharing human spaces. His work sought to challenge conventional patterns of activity, through events called dérives, which were unplanned tours, or “drifts,” through urban environments based on misreading maps or responding to psychological cues. He called this way of navigating the environment through mood and behavior psychogeography. By picking up on the feelings evoked by the surroundings and sharing them with one another, a group can embrace a situation or reinterpret it in creative ways. For Debord, the dérive was an experimental method meant to critique or jolt our everyday experience of the environment.

Taken together, these readings suggest that for people the environment exists through interacting with it. As such, the environment is not a passive “out there” condition, but something that everyone participates in creating and defining. Rather than a simple internal– external relationship between people and the environment, there is a complex and dynamic exchange in which the environment informs human knowledge, and human experiences shape the way by which the environment is known. Like Setha Low’s description of embodied space in Section 1, Máire Eithne O’Neill (2001) describes the role of corporeal haptic experiences of space and place that are developed through movement, touch, and other senses and how they can inform design experiences. Furthermore, while scholars agree that spatial knowledge exists, they wrestle with how exactly people are able to maintain cognitive maps and whether these spatial images are analogous to visual maps, or some other type of metaphor or construct. Others argue that cognitive maps are inadequate and that only navigating through a space leads to spatial knowledge (Ingold 2011). There is increasing evidence that builds from both approaches and understands mental maps to be processual and representational, i.e., never complete and always becoming (Kitchin and Dodge 2007). This selection of readings examines environmental experience and human perception in the broadest sense to understand the human-environment interplay, and suggests some of the lively ways by which we trace how humans know and creatively interact with their environments.

This research synthesis article is sourced from ‘The people, place and space reader’ edited by Jen Jack Gieseking & William Mangold, with Cindi Katz, Setha Low, & Susan Saegert

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