Perceptual Learning as Intuition-Making

My talk for the ( æthos ) Salon Series: Intuition as Sensemaking event held on November 4. It’s about linking perceptual learning to intuition and in so doing starting to frame an account of the genesis of intuitive abilities, or, as I’m framing it, a process we could call intuition-making. Full notes below.

I’m trying to land us in a place where we can talk meaningful about some aspects of intuition-making as part of the larger sense-making process.

So, I’m going to speak a little bit about intuition and its characteristics, I’ll move into the history of perceptual learning as an idea, and then I’ll cover some of the empirical and philosophical support for perceptual learning. To close out I’ll describe some examples of perceptual learning and how they relate to intuition and intuition-making.


Oxford English Dictionary:

Immediate apprehension by sense.

Direct or immediate insight.

mid-15c., intuicioun, “insight, direct or immediate cognition, spiritual perception,” originally theological, from Late Latin intuitionem (nominative intuitio) “a looking at, consideration.”

(root “en” or “in”) + tueri “to look at, watch over”; near, in, on, within, intimate, internal, introspection.

The immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process.

Spiritual perception or immediate knowledge, ascribed to angelic and spiritual beings, with whom vision and knowledge are identical.

Can we talk about intelligent apprehension in the mode of intuition without appealing to standard notions of intelligence that are often linked to reason, discourse, explicit conceptualization and so on, while at the same time not letting getting go of reason?

And what does it mean for perception to be intelligent, skillful, responsive (and not just reactive), but also non-discursive, non-analytic, and so on?

I think we can do some of this work by linking the intuitive process to perceptual learning, and in turn using perceptual learning to talk about something like intuition-making as part of a larger sense-making process that includes both reason and intuition alike, and that gives us language to talk about the development of both skills.

The History of Perceptual Learning

What, then, is perceptual learning?

My two principles sources here are Kevin Connolly and Eleanor Gibson.

Connolly (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

“Perceptual Learning” refers to long-lasting changes in perception that result from practice or experience.

Eleanor Gibson wrote in 1963 a landmark survey article on perceptual learning where she defined the term. Gibson defined perceptual learning as “any relatively permanent and consistent change in the perception of a stimulus array, following practice or experience with this array” (1963: 29).

This definition, Connolly relays, has three basic parts. First, perceptual learning is long-lasting. Second, it is perceptual. Third, it is the result of practice or experience.

Gibson also co-authored a book with Anne Pick in the year 2000 entitled, An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development.

This work not only lays out a theory of perceptual learning, which Gibson had been working on since as early as 1955 with her husband James J. Gibson, but also gives a very useful historical survey of perceptual learning and associated discussions as they appear in the history of philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science.

If you’re new to this discussion Gibson’s book is a great place to start, both because the work really is rooted in her and her husband’s initial ideas and because you’ll find the ideas situated within a long tradition of thinking about things like the origins knowledge, the mind-body problem, and the nature of development.

Gibson also makes it clear that theories of perceptual learning aren’t new, and that you can find some important analogues in debates over rationalism and empiricism in philosophy, or in conversations between dynamical systems theory, information processing, and psychology that are ongoing today.

I won’t talk about those debates too much more right now, but I want to give you a sense for where these discussions are happening and how perceptual learning fits into them.

Perceptual Learning Today

In terms of the work being done today, I want to recommend Kevin Connolly’s 2019 work Perceptual Learning: The Flexibility of the Senses. This is a very comprehensive but still readable and accessible work where Connolly lays out the current best case arguments for perceptual learning today by synthesizing and evaluating a large number of empirical studies completed in psychology and cognitive science.

What I’ll do here is describe Connolly’s basic thesis behind perceptual learning, what the alternative accounts say, and then I’ll go over the evidence that supports Connolly’s view before closing out with some examples and their connections to intuition-making.

Connolly distinguishes to competing claims about perception and learning: One he calls “the Perceptual View” and the other he calls “the Cognitive View.”

In the Perceptual View, learning changes percepts (the objects of perception). Here he says things like Cabernet Sauvignon tastes different to an expert wine taster and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sounds different to an expert composer because the actual percepts in question have changed because of transformations in the perceptual processing systems of the experts. These changes he calls genuinely perceptual changes.

In the Cognitive View, what the expert experiences is a post-perceptual difference. In other words, rather than being a genuinely perceptual change in experience, there is instead only an intellectual or conceptual difference that gets retrofitted after the fact back onto the physiology of the sensory experience.

Now, Connolly holds that some learning is cognitive, some is perceptual, and some is both, but what we’re looking at right now are genuinely perceptual changes.

So what are the sources of evidence for the Perceptual View? I’ll focus on just two here:

(1) Philosophical introspection. Connolly equates this type of evidence with work done in sensory phenomenology, where the goal is to evaluate for yourself the shifts that occur in your own experience as you complete a task. The example he gives here is of a person tasked within identifying a certain species of tree in a forest and then learning to take some action in relation to it. You can actually observe your own perceptual learning in real time as you do it.

(2) Cognitive science. “The idea is that perceptual learning involves changes in perception, so accompanying changes in the areas of the brain responsible for the change are to be expected” (49), and indeed we do find modifications in the relevant sensory cortices of the brain as a result of practice and training.

The key idea here is that cortical plasticity isn’t associated, as was once thought, with development in the early stages of life alone, but remains to some degree experience-dependent into adulthood (49–50). How do we know this?

Visual stimulus tests that have users look for hard-to-find variations in the presentation of an object that increase with difficulty over weeks as the trial goes on found through fMRI imaging increased activation in the primary visual cortex (occipital lobe in the back of the brain). Specifically, the amplitude of the fMRI signal increased by 39% on average after training versus the control group (52).

These tests, which have also been done using other sense modalities and have achieved similar results show that training in specific discrimination tasks lead to genuine neuronal changes, rather than simply delivering the ability to wield new words or cognitive inferences upon a sensory physiology that remains the same.

In other words, we can take both first-person phenomenological accounts and third-person cognitive science ones as evidence for the perceptual learning thesis. We can also look at several other examples that demonstrate perceptual learning.

Emotional Granularity

Lisa Feldman Barret – Emotional granularity is an individual’s ability to differentiate between the specificity of their emotions. An individual with high emotional granularity would be able to discriminate between their emotions that all fall within the same level of valence and arousal, labeling their experiences with discrete emotion words. Someone with low emotional granularity would report their emotions in global terms, usually of pleasure or displeasure.

Thought in Action

Barbara Gail Montero – Thought in action is a concept she’s been working, which is backed by empirical studies and philosophical inquiry, that suggests we have or can train up this capacity to switch between the more intuitive and immediate sensibility, as exhibited in, say, high-level sports competition, and a kind of second-order cognitive readjustment at the level of thinking and explicit representation.

Mind Moments

Evan Thompson – “It’s well known in experimental psychology that there is a certain minimal window of time within which two successive events will be consistently perceived as happening at the same time. For example, if you’re shown two successive lights with less than about 100 milliseconds between them, you’ll see the lights as simultaneous. If the interval is slightly increased, you’ll see one light in rapid motion. If the interval is further increased, you’ll see the lights as sequential. These phenomena of “apparent simultaneity” and “apparent motion” have sometimes been interpreted as supporting the idea of a discrete “perceptual frame,” according to which stimuli are grouped together and experienced as one event when they fall within a period of approximately 100 milliseconds.”

“Two events with the same time interval between them can be perceived as simultaneous on one occasion and as sequential on another occasion, depending on their temporal relationship to perceptual framing: if they fall within the same perceptual frame, they’re experienced as simultaneous, but if they fall in different perceptual frames, they’re experienced as sequential. In short, what you perceive as one event happening “now” depends not just on the objective time of things but on how you perceptually frame them.”

“If attention samples information periodically, as such studies suggest, and if attention is trainable, as the scientific studies of meditation to be discussed later in this chapter indicate, then we can hypothesize that long-term meditation practice may increase the sampling rate of attention by tuning certain brain rhythms, specifically the theta oscillations associated with attention. I will come back to this idea later.” The short answer is yes.”

These individuals were “high achievers” compared to the others in the study who weren’t reliably aware of such rapidly presented stimuli. In addition, recent scientific studies have shown that certain types of meditation improve attention in precisely measurable ways on a millisecond time scale, so you could start out as an “average achiever” and become a “high achiever” as a result of meditative mental training. Taken together, these findings suggest that being able to identify and describe discrete moments of awareness happening as fast as 10–20 milliseconds is by no means beyond the human mind, especially the mind trained in meditation. Thus the Abhidharma philosophers’ estimates of roughly 15 milliseconds for an inwardly observable mind moment do not seem unreasonable.”


My point in discussing intuition and intuition-making in these terms has been that intuitions have a kind nonpropositional intelligence that doesn’t require explicit representation, and that this mode of knowing is trained up in part through perceptual learning practices. On this view, perceptual learning is a mode of intuition-making, an integral component of larger sense-making efforts that include rationality and intuition alike. I believe it’s just his type of training and practice that can assist us in making sense not just of instrumental tasks, but in social and moral tasks that could benefit from more participatory and pluralistic modes of knowing.


  1. Its hard for me to think about intuition without thinking of Antonio Damasio’s second book The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Harcourt, 1999. He explains how embodied processes of knowing begin well before conscious awareness. I’m sure these can be trained but it is interesting that they are so integral to us that there can be no normal intelligence without emotions or intuitive visceral reactions. One way of putting it is that intuitions are not another mode of knowing but part of how we know everything. However this is a useful post for me right now.


    • “One way of putting it is that intuitions are not another mode of knowing but part of how we know everything”— yes to this. I struggle sometimes with making any of these distinctions — between emotions, intuitions, concepts, reasons, etc. — at all. I think they’re mostly more or less ad hoc ways of talking, but also, just to complicate things, there are some reasons for delineating between, say, intuitive response, and explicit linguistic deliberation / representation, so there must be some way in which these words “cut at the joints” of something, right? Also, Damasio is key here.


      • Linguistic deliberation is a practice’; we are always training our attention. If we see knowledge as process it should not be surprising that these are fluid phases, that intuitions are interactive with what we think of as the knowledge involving linguistic deliberation which is also a training of attention. I think this is not quite what you are thinking about above (the perception of moments, and the the training of attention that links moments) but I feel it is closely related related. Just to hone the concept, intuition might be seen as: 1. a way of processing knowledge that takes place behind the scenery of waking consciousness as well as 2. a way of experiencing knowledge that arrives without warning; a sudden gift. We go back and forth between experiencing the practice or striving and the gift, though sometimes they coalesce. But we have to be *trying* to do something to attain the gift. At the same time we train the attention in everything we do — whether learning to see nebulae in the night sky, finding edible fungi in a woodland, or trying to figure something out from a Latin text. We have to be trying to do it. But also learning doesn’t happen in a continuous way, nor seemingly as an immediate and direct result of practice, but by little jumps and backward meanders and strangely lighting in a place of unanticiapted greater knowledge. We all know how problems insoluble in the evening can resolve in the morning with apparently no effort. My father said he learned to skate from a dream, which I think of as another form of the same phenomenon (of course he’d not have dreamt how to skate if he’d not been trying to learn how to skate; the dream just cast him into the very near future of a knowledge he was already practicing and striving for). But knowing is a process of the whole body, not relegated simply to the moments we are attending to, or the practicing or striving for knowledge we don’t have yet, nor yet the moments of sudden certainty. I think this is what you are getting at above when you refer eg to all these being part of a “larger sense-making process” – these are different phases of a whole embodied process. I think about this processual relation as I try to understand what prophecy means for my medieval subjects, how it fits to memory, intuition, and dream. I always like the thoughts you provoke.


      • Thank you, Claire. This response of yours could be a post of its own. Really well said.


      • “Linguistic deliberation is a practice’; we are always training our attention”
        linguistic deliberation is certainly something we have learned to do been socialized into
        not so sure that we our always training our attentions (seems we are deeply blinkered by our
        pre-judices, our cognitive biases, and that we have no direct access to hack them) unless you mean something like the feedback loops Andy gets into in the vid below
        my critique of Andy’s work along these lines is that he often talks about human-being/doings in terms of getting the world right enough but doesn’t frame this in terms of getting it right for specific purposes/tasks which is closer to what I think you are suggesting here and I see as a kind of pragmatism we are always already manipulating things for our purposes and sometimes these manipulations (and the affordances and resistances of what we are attempting to manipulate, the mangle of practice as Andrew Pickering lays out)) change our focuses/interests ( a kind of secular grace as you note) the question than is are there practices that make these sort of gestalt shifts more likely (see Wittgenstein on aspect-dawnings) and that’s good empirical project to take up.


  2. perhaps you organize some version of this in yer area but in a more applied way:

    not so much life coaching as practice (alva has a nice take on ‘practice’ in the above) consulting, lots of folks could use a step back from their routines to make sure their means still serve their interests and not the other way around.


    • Yeah, I have some plans and ideas. Going to continue publishing / podcasting with TSV in the same way as I’ve been doing for now, but as soon as the diss is done I’ll have more time to expand into courses, workshops, events, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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