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James Jerome Gibson

American psychologist known for his work on visual perception.

James Jerome Gibson proposed a theory of vision that was a first of its kind; he suggested that visual perception was the direct detection of environmental invariances, and that visual perception did not require inference or information processing.

Gibson was born in 1904 in McConnelsville, Ohio. He started his undergraduate career at Northwestern University. He transferred to Princeton University, where he earned his B.A. in 1925 and his Ph.D. in 1928. His dissertation research focused on memory and learning. During his career he taught psychology at Smith College between 1928 and 1949 and then went on to teach at Cornell between 1949 and 1972. At Smith, Gibson met Kurt Koffka, a proponent of Gestalt psychology. Koffka's influence shaped Gibson's future research and practice.

Gibson served in World War II and during his time in the service he directed the U.S. Air Force Research Unit in Aviation Psychology. In the Army, Gibson developed tests used to screen potential pilots. In doing so, he made the observation that more information could be drawn from moving pictures, such as film, than static ones. This observation sparked his interest in visual perception.

After the war, Gibson returned to Smith for a brief period before moving to Cornell. Gibson married Eleanor Jack Gibson, who became a major psychologist in her own right. Together they had two sons. In 1950 Gibson published The Perception of the Visual World which outlined his ground breaking theory of visual perception. In this publication, Gibson asserted that texture gradients on the ground are linked to similar gradients found on the retina in the eye. These complementary gradients allow humans to have depth perception. He further suggested that a new branch of science, called ecological optics, was needed to study perceptions in more detail. His next book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, outlined this new discipline in detail.

Gibson's theory was that of direct perception, which means that humans directly perceive their environment through stimulation of the retina. Traditionally, and especially by Gestalt psychologists, perception was believed to be indirect. According to this theory, humans do not directly perceive their environment. It is only through sensory stimulation over time that we learn what is in our environments, and that we perceive much more than mere sensory input.

Although Gibson's theory was met with much criticism, it did help advance the study of perception. Through his theory of ecological optics, the study of perception shifted from laboratory-created situations to real environmental tests. His ideas also pushed further research into the areas of vision and perception. Gibson died in 1979.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Further Reading

Sheehy et al, eds. Biographical dictionary of psychology New York: Routledge, 1997.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists