Thinking for Seeing: Enculturation of Visual-Referential Expertise as Demonstrated by Photo-Triggered Perceptual Reorganization of Two-Tone “Mooney” Images


Two-tones (”Mooney”-esque transformations of grayscale photographs) can be difficult to recognize. However, after viewing a photo cue, adults experience rapid “perceptual reorganization,” and the two-tones become immediately recognizable. In contrast to adults, preschool-aged children are generally unable to recognize two-tone images even when the photograph is simultaneously available. While simple instructional and perceptual interventions were ineffective, a cognitive intervention in which children were convinced that the photo and two-tone images were transformations of the same physical object improved children’s recognition. We found a similar deficit in recognition in adults from a hunter-gatherer tribe (Pirahã) with a sparse visual symbolic culture and limited exposure to modern visual media. Photo-triggered perceptual reorganization of two-tone images may therefore be a product of prolonged enculturation, reflecting visual-referential expertise. As we gain skill in representing visual correspondences, one of the surprising consequences may be the ability to literally see things we couldn’t see before.

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