Perceptual Learning

There are, predominantly, two ways in which human beings learn. These are by formal instruction; or through the senses by practical experience. The latter route is called perceptual learning.In practice, of course, most of our learning comprises a combination of both processes.

Perceptual learning is the process of improving perceptual skills by the exercise of those perceptual skills - usually in the process of doing some task. These improvements can be simple sensory discriminations (e.g., distinguishing colours) or complex categorizations of patterns (e.g. reading). (Kellman 2002) Perceptual learning is an important foundation of complex cognitive processes (e.g. language) and interacts with other kinds of learning to produce perceptual expertise. Perceptual learning occurs throughout the life of an organism and involves changes in the structure and function of neurons in the sensory cortex. Whilst it seems likely that norepinephrine regulates the processes of neuron restructuring during perceptual learning the exact mechanism remains unclear.

In laboratory experiments perceptual learning is most easily observed as improved performance times in simple pattern recognition tasks repeated at intervals. (Westheimer 1978 ) More complex forms of perceptual learning are observed when the exercise of reading skills leads to extraction and rapid processing of the structural regularities of spelling patterns: people are often much faster at recognizing words than individual letters. (Reicher, G.M. 1969)

Something like 2% of children arrive at school already able to read having undergone no rigorous instruction of any kind. These children, who number several tens of thousands every year, tend to support the idea that explicit systematic instruction is not the only mechanism by which reading can be learned.

Perceptual learning is the method favoured by highly successful, commercial foreign language teaching courses such as Rosetta Stone which have long since abandoned direct instruction in favour of direct experience techniques. Every year, the phonic correspondences can are internalised perceptually by about 10,000 UK children who arrive at school already having had lots of phonics experience but no formal phonics instruction. How does this seeming miracle occur without fail every year?

Perceptual learning has been the subject of research in every leading university in the world. Dr Philip Kellman and his team who run the Human Perception Laboratory at UCLA have developed a range of highly successful perceptual learning modules (PLMs) to secure the assimilation of maths and science concepts. Research into the use of perceptual learning to boost literacy skills is most advanced in the UK. To find out more about the theoretical basis for perceptual learning, visit

Kellman, P. J. (2002) Perceptual learning. In Pashler, H. and Gallistel, R. (Editors) Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 3: Learning, Motivation, and Emotion (3rd Edition), New York: Wiley

Westheimer G, McKee SP. (1978) Stereoscopic acuity for moving retinal images. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 68(4):450-455 doi:10.1364/JOSA.68.000450

Reicher, G.M. (1969). Perceptual recognition as a function of meaningfulness of stimulus material. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 81(2), 275-280. doi:10.1037/h0027768

Goldstone, R. L., Steyvers, M., Spencer-Smith, J. & Kersten, A. (2000). Interaction between perceptual and conceptual learning. In E. Diettrich & A. B. Markman (Eds). Cognitive Dynamics: Conceptual Change in Humans and Machines (pp. 191-228). Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates

Karni, A, & Sagi, D. (1993). The time course of learning a visual skill. Nature, 365(6443):250–252. doi:10.1038/365250a0

Wheeler, D. D. (1970). Processes in the visual recognition of words (Doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, 1970). Dissertation Abstracts Internationals, 31(2), 940B.

Liberman, A.M., Harris, K.S., Hoffman, H.S., & Griffith,B.C. (1957). The discrimination of speech sounds within and across phonemes boundaries. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54(5), 358-368.

Gibson, Eleanor (1969) Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts