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A Second Way of Knowing by Edmund Blair Bolles
The Riddle of Human Perception
Published by Prentice Hall Press in 1991
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


How do we see? How do we perceive constancy of size in our visual field as we move about? How does sleepwalking work? How does dreaming affect our eyes (REM) but not our arms and legs? These and many other questions about the nature of perception are asked and often answered in this book.

Bolles takes us on an historical survey of the field of perception. We look through his studious eyes as he inspects the manifold reaches of this field. We follow him into the library as he studies the history of perception and then to Irvine, California and Dallas, Texas as he visits research teams working on problems in this field. We watch as he recreates the humanist-physicalist battle for dominance in explaining perception. Do we have vision to create a physically accurate representation of the world or do we have vision to create an individualized human view of the world.?

The answers, when they come, derive from key experiments by researchers in the field of perception. When they inverted a frog's eyes and re-wired them, the frog constantly missed bugs with its tongue. When they put upside-down glasses on humans, similar response occurred for the first three weeks, then a marvelous thing happened: the visual field inverted itself in the wearer's head and he could see things right side up again. The message was clear: the brain learns by changing the way it works not by storing mechanical information in large vats. Lashley spent his life looking for such vats. He called them engrams, or memory traces, and after a life of dead-ends he came to the conclusion that memory was impossible.

Through the many theories and experiments we find a focus either on the subjective or objective characteristics of perception but nowhere do we find something that bridges both. This question science leaves unanswered: Is this gap between specific and general meaning, subjective and objective characteristics, an unbridgeable one? Are we rationally constructed automata with lightning fast reflexes or clumsy, slow learning machines with a perceptual basis? Bolles answers in the last sentence of this too short book, "When the slowpoke, perceiving mongoose goes up against the lightning reflexes of the cobra, it is madness to bet on the cobra."

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