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Learning and perception in animals and humans

Learning and perception in animals and humans

Introduction: (Initial Observation)

Magicians, hypnotists, animal trainers, advertisers and politicians have one thing in common. They all have skills that helps them to control and divert our minds as needed.

What we see, what we hear and what we feel, are not the facts, they are just what our brain interprets from varieties of audio visual and sensory signals. Think about a magic illusion. As long as you don’t know the facts of that, it is fun, exciting and interesting. But as soon as you learn about the trick, it will lose all it’s coolness and becomes boring. In this project we will investigate learning and perception. Let’s hope that this will answer many of our questions about how our mind works.


This project guide contains information that you need in order to start your project. If you have any questions or need more support about this project, click on the “Ask Question” button on the top of this page to send me a message.

If you are new in doing science project, click on “How to Start” in the main page. There you will find helpful links that describe different types of science projects, scientific method, variables, hypothesis, graph, abstract and all other general basics that you need to know.

Project advisor

Information Gathering:

Find out about learning and perception. Read books, magazines or ask professionals who might know about learning and perception in animals and humans. Keep track of where you got your information from. Find about scientists who already studied in this subject. Every step of your investigation will give you some new lids and makes it easier for you to go to the next step. Following are samples of information:


Learning is a semi-permanent change in knowledge or behavior due to experience. So when you argue with your parents and get grounded, then shut up the next time they confront you and say nothing, you’ve learned that arguing has negative consequences on you.

In psychology there are classifications for different types of learning. One type of learning is classical conditioning. In classical conditioning you learn when two or more events are paired in time. For example, every time you hear a bell you get kicked in the leg and then scream. Two or three kicks later you learn to associate the bell with the kick and then start screaming at the sound of the bell. In that scenario, the kick is called the unconditioned stimulus, or the thing that will automatically produce a response (your scream). The scream is called the unconditional response because it is the unlearned reaction to the unconditioned stimulus. So what does that make the bell? Well, the bell is the neutral thing that when paired with the unconditioned stimulus (kick) acquires the ability to elicit a conditioned response. And the conditioned response is simply a term for the event where the learned response to the conditioned stimulus (bell) resembles the unconditioned response. So your response to the bell is similar to your response to the kick.

To prove that this was true, a guy named Pavlov did an experiment with a dog, some dog food and a bell. (You must read this because all educated people know about Pavlov’s Dog.)

Ivan Pavlov was studying digestive processes in a certain dog when he realized that the dog would begin salivating to food-related stimuli after working with Pavlov repeatedly. The food dish, the usual person who fed the dog, and even footsteps in the hall all made the dog salivate. At first this annoyed Pavlov because it interfered with his work on digestion, but the implied learning process intrigued Pavlov and he ditched his digestive study for the study of this form of learning. To determine what triggered the dog to salivate, Pavlov and his associates set up an experiment. The dog already had a surgically implanted tube in its mouth that was attached to the salivary gland. This tube ran into a test tube that recorded exactly how much saliva the dog was producing. By pairing neutral stimuli to the food in the dog’s mouth, they hoped to be able to condition the dog to salivate to the neutral stimuli when it was presented alone. Pavlov’s experiment eventually led to his sounding a tone just before placing the food in front of the dog. After several pairings of the tone and the food, the dog began salivating to the tone alone. This effectively proved that one can condition a response and led to a new term for a recently researched type of learning–classical conditioning.

A drawing of the Pavlov's Dog experiment

Before we proceed, you should probably know that CS stands for conditioned stimulus, UCS stands for unconditioned stimulus, CR stands for conditioned response, and UCR stands for unconditioned response.

Under the classification classical conditioning, there are FIVE more sub-classifications, or categories. They are as follows:

1. SIMULTANEOUS CONDITIONING- CS & UCS begin at the same time. (minimal learning)

2. DELAYED CONDITIONING – CS starts first and continues at least until the UCS begins. (very effective for learning)

3. TRACE CONDITIONING- CS starts before and ends before the UCS is presented. (minimal effectiveness in learning due to long interval between time)

4. TEMPORAL CONDITIONING- UCS presented alone at time intervals, so time becomes the CS because the CR occurs according to time










Another type of learning is called Instrumental Learning. This is learning that occurs when a response is strengthened or weakened by consequences. The LAW of EFFECT = the principle of reward and punishment that encourages and discourages responding. So, you don’t study for a test and as a result you fail. Failing is the consequence and the next time that your teacher informs the class that there is a test coming up your new response will (hopefully) be to study.

And yet another type of learning is Operant Conditioning. This was B.F. Skinner’s theory of learning and it is simply instrumental learning that involves some kind of environmental control of responses. This involves a discriminative stimulus (stimulus that sets the occasion for a response that will lead to reinforcement) and the operant (behavior to be reinforced). As most children know there are different ways to reinforce a behavior. One may be reinforced with reward to ensure that the behavior continues, or one may use an aversive reinforcement that ensures the behavior will not occur again (grounding). Skinner believed in training procedures such as positive reinforcement or reward training. This is when actions that follow an operant response make responding more probable. (Your parents give you money when you get an “A” on a test.) Punishment is the opposite of positive reinforcement with negative events following an operant response that therefore make the response less probable. (You tease your big brother and he hits you.) Omission training occurs when an operant response removes a positive event and thus becomes less probable. (You yell at your parents and they take away your car keys.) And finally, negative reinforcement occurs when an operant response removes an aversive (negative) event, making the response more probable. (You’re grounded until you apologize to your teacher, once you apologize you are free, so apologizing becomes probable!)

There are 3, I said 3, types of reinforcers.







Cognitive learning is learning that involves mental processes, like thinking and development of decision rules. Have you ever gone totally blank in the middle of a test? You know how you just sit there staring at the question, wondering what the class will be like next year when you are in it for the second time because of this one, stupid question the teacher pulled out of nowhere? And then, poof, the answer suddenly comes to you and you have the relief of knowing that you won’t be in old lady Uptight’s class next year after all. There is actually a technical term for what we call luck. It’s Insight Learning and the definition is what I just described, the sudden awareness to the solution of a problem.


What about those things you can’t learn by thinking about? Things like the Tootsie Roll. You can’t learn a new dance by thinking about it, you have to watch someone else do it first. And that type of learning is referred to as observational learning

Related Links:





The science of perception delves into what many would deem to be optical illusions. Put simply, everything around us emits some sort of signal — whether it is light, sound, or some other stimulation. Perception is how we utilize our minds to interpret these signals into a particular sound or a specific color. There is much debate as to whether perception is inborn or learned. It has been generally agreed on that while some aspects of the perceptual mind are accounted for at birth, much of our perception is determined by our experience. Through much research, psychologists have determined a number of tendencies in our perceptual views of the world.

FUN WITH PERCEPTION: The colors on this flag are complementary to red, white, and blue. To see the American flag as it should appear, stare at this image for 45 seconds, then transfer your eyes to the white portion of your screen.

One of the elementary aspects of perception deals with the issue of figure-ground reversal. This concerns a tendency of the eye to separate an object into the figure of focus and the background on which it is set. In the picture shown, some will see the dark region, a vase, as the figure while others view that as the background, making the two faces the primary feature. After a preliminary separation of the two areas, the eye will often reverse the two and view the picture in the opposite way. This results in the reversal.

[Figure-ground reversal]

Another important set of principles comes to us from the Gestalt philosophers, rules often referred to as Principles of Perceptual organization. These explain the brain’s tendencies when viewing a group of objects. One tendency is called proximity. In other words, the mind will group objects that are close together for matters of simplicity. Another method of organization is labeled similarity. By this, the mind groups similar objects together to form easily recognizable patterns. This may deal with the orientation or shape of the objects viewed. For example, if someone saw a group of X’s and O’s, they would tend to view the X’s as one group and the O’s as a second. Another phenomenon which Gestalt philosophers point out is called closure. In this, a common object which is drawn only partially may be seen as the complete object. For example, a circle with a slight gap in it would most likely be recognized as a circle, even though the visual stimuli is that of only a partial circle.

The law of proximity explains how we classify these dots into two separate groups.

Yet another phenomenon of human perception involves real and illusionary motion. Ordinarily, if the stimulus is moving, the brain perceives motion. However, movement within the stimulus is not always necessary to create a perception of movement. This is demonstrated by the stroboscopic effect. This is the result of a repeatedly flashing light which creates the illusion of motion. The television is perhaps the most common example of this. The images seen on TV are nothing more than a series of still photos flashed in rapid succession. By virtue of the stroboscopic effect, this succession of pictures combine and appear to be in movement. In reality, the figures are not actually moving from within the television set, but we perceive motion even in its absence. Also apparent in this area is the phi phenomenon. This occurs when two lights are flashed rapidly in succession. The two lights are perceived as a single moving light, even though the individual lights are not moving.

The eye perceives movement in this image.

Now, we move on to constancies in our perceptual range. As is commonly known, objects which are farther away are perceived as being smaller. However, we have a sense of constancy when judging the size of a far away object. As an example, think of a basketball. Up close, you might see its diameter to be one foot. If the same ball was viewed from 30 feet away, the size may only appear to be an inch or so. However, if asked to estimate the size of the ball, one would probably guess its diameter within a fairly close range. This is because the mind accounts for the distance from which the object is being viewed and allows us to judge its size with high accuracy. Along the same line is shape constancy. If a plate were viewed from above, it would appear as a circle. If viewed from an angle, it would actually appear to have an oblong shape. The brain, once again, accounts for the change in angle and determines the shape to be round as well.

Next of importance is depth perception. How can we tell how far away an object is? The stimuli which makes this possible are called distance cues. There are two basic categories. The first, monocular cues, deals with those which require the use of only one eye to achieve. First is relative retinal size, meaning that farther away objects appear smaller. Also, farther objects seem to take on a bluish tint, though the full reason is not known. The third monocular cue is attributed to something called the texture gradient. As a general rule, objects that are very near appear to be sharper and more defined while further objects take on a coarse and rough texture, almost appearing fuzzy. By judging the texture, one can determine the distance. Another cue is the motion parallax. This is demonstrated by, for example, a person looking out of a car window. As the car drives by different objects, they seem to move at various speeds. Objects at further distances will always seem to be passing at a slower pace while nearby objects pass relatively quickly. The second category of distance cues involves the use of both eyes — a binocular cue. Your two eyes, because of their slightly different orientations, receive slightly different views of visual stimuli. The brain analyzes both and comes up with a composite. The complex calculations of angles by which the object is viewed can be converted into a distance between the object and the viewer.

The Doors of Perception is an article by Dr. Tim O’Shea (www.thedoctorwithin.com) about the influence of advertisement in our perception. Click on the http://www.mercola.com/2001/aug/15/perception.htm to read that.


During visual perception and recognition, human eyes move and successively fixate at the most informative parts of the image. The eyes actively perform problem-oriented selection and processing of information from the visible world under the control of visual attention. Consequently, visual perception and recognition may be considered as behavioral processes, and probably cannot be completely understood in limited frames of neural computations without taking into account behavioral and cognitive aspects of these processes. Visit http://www.rybak-et-al.net/vnc.html for more details.

I found a few good links when I searched for examples of perception. One of the links contains some pictures that may be perceived in different ways. You can find many examples of visual perception on the Internet. Among those are:


Is Perception the ‘Leading Edge’ of Memory?

Perceptual Ambiguity

Do you see an old woman or a young woman in this illustration? They are both present, but you will not be able to see both of them simultaneously. Once you perceive both figures, see if you can get them to fluctuate back and forth between the two interpretations.

What’s Going on Here?

This type of reversible figure concerns the meaningful content of what is interpreted by your brain from the same static image. Your perception of each figure tends to remain stable until you attend to different regions or contours. Certain regions and contours tend to favor one perception, others the alternative. Even though certain contours in this figure are ambiguous, your perceptual change in this case does not involve a figure/ground reversal.

When the provocatively turned cheek becomes the cheek-nose, the rest of face abruptly changes following the lead of the nose. For example, if a certain line is tentatively identified as a nose, then the line below it must be the mouth and the shapes above it must be the eyes. These partial identifications mutually support one another to form a stable perception. The identifications of wholes and of parts will likewise be reciprocally supportive, contributing further to the locking-in process. Your visual system tends to group like or related regions together. It does not present you with some odd mixture of the two alternatives.

Attending to different regions or contours does tend to initiate a change of perception. However, it is not necessary to shift your gaze for a perceptual change to occur. It can be entirely spontaneous. If this image is looked at with a steady eye, it will still change, though less often. Researchers have stabilized the image directly onto the retina to eliminate any effects that may arise from eye movements. Even uder these conditions, a perceptual reversal may occur. This indicates that higher cortical processing occurs that strives to make meaning out of a stable image presented to the retina. This illustrates once more that vision is an active process that attempts to make sense of incoming information. As the late David Marr said, “Perception is the construction of a description.”

History of this illustration

For many years the creator of this famous figure was thought to be British cartoonist W. E. Hill, who published it in 1915. Hill almost certainly adapted the figure from an original concept that was popular throughout the world on trading and puzzle cards.

This anonymous dated German postcard (shown at the top of the page) from 1888 depicts the image in its earliest known form.

The 1890 example on the left shows quite clearly its association as “My Wife and Mother-in-Law.” Both of these examples predate the Punch cartoon that was previously thought to serve as the figure’s inspiration.

The figure was later altered and adapted by others, including the two psychologists, R. W. Leeper and E. G. Boring who described the figure and made it famous within psychological circles in 1930. It has often been referred to as the “Boring figure.”


What is this picture? As you search for meaning in this picture your brain strives to make sense of the seemingly meaningless spots. If, after a good effort, you still see no meaning in the picture read the answer below. Once you “see” the solution it will never again be meaningless to you.

So What’s Going On?

This experiment shows that past experience can affect your perception of such properties as form or depth. Consider what happens when you view this illustration. At first most people cannot tell what this picture depicts, but with continued inspection or a hint, the fragments suddenly are perceptually reorganized and recognized, in this case, as a Dalmatian dog. A recognizable image emerges that had no perceptual reality before. Hence, there is some sort of perceptual change among the neurons in your brain. This also leads to a change in the way in which you perceive the shape and depth of the scene. Perhaps most importantly, the figure now looks like the object it was supposed to represent – it now has the shape and depth relations of a Dalmatian dog.

Sometimes being told that a Dalmatian hides in this scene can provide the visual system with enough of a hint to recognize the dog. This is a case in which a high-level brain area underlying language comprehension tells a lower-level area, in this case the cortical areas dedicated to visual scene analysis, what might be going on.

If this dog was animated then it would be immediately apparent. Common motion of a group of otherwise unrecognizable blobs is a very powerful cue for your visual system. It enables your visual system to realize that it’s dealing with a single object. This effect is termed grouping. It is important that an animal can do this well, otherwise it might not easily spot a predator, prey or other food, such as apples. Animals must be able to separate the figure from the ground. What we call camouflage is an attempt to deceive these processes. A stalking cat moves cautiously and freezes from time to time to avoid giving motion clues to its prey. It has even been suggested that our good color vision evolved to enable our primate ancestors to spot colored fruit against a confusing background of green leaves. What gives us so much visual pleasure may originate as a device to spot our food and to break camouflage.

In most illustrations, we tend to perceive a figure that stands out from the background. In printed material, the figure is usually darker than its background. Figures also tend to be smaller and more regular than backgrounds. Sometimes these principles do not hold, and we have difficulty distinguishing figures from their backgrounds. However, this difficulty disappears when our brain somehow organizes these difficult visual images into a meaningful and recognizable pattern. When this is done, only the figure and background can be seen, and whatever was seen before is gone forever! Once you understand what is being presented, your perception changes, and you will be fixed on the “correct” interpretation forever.

Since these types of figure/ground figures do not lead to immediate identification, the mental recognition of the “correct” figure must be perceptual in character. After all, the image does not change on your retina. Thus we can assume that some mental process that precedes or accompanies the moment of recognition entails a perceptual reorganization.

Second Experiment.

Now that you have recognized the Dalmatian dog, try perceiving the image in its original meaningless way. You will find it almost impossible to do.

Once you have recognized the Dalmatian dog, it becomes almost impossible to see the picture in its original meaningless interpretation. The picture becomes permanently meaningful. This is in contrast to a truly bistable or ambiguous figure that has two equally likely interpretations. The bistable or ambiguous figure will “flip” between two states perennially, because your brain cannot decide which one is more meaningfully biased over the other one.

In the case of the Dalmatian dog, however, once your brain perceives the “correct” image and ascribes meaning to the picture, your brain will not be able to perceive a meaningless image again, because the meaningless interpretation is no longer equally biased with that of your past experience with Dalmatian dogs.

During all the time you were staring at the picture, the image on your retina did not change. Rather, your brain worked to construct a correct interpretation of the image, trying out different interpretations, until your brain “recognized” something. This emphasizes that perception is an active process of constructing a scene description.

What do you see here? Do you see the profiles of two heads or a vase?

Notice how the image fluctuates between the two possibilities even though the image on your retina remains constant. It is difficult to perceive both meaningful images simultaneously.

So What’s Going On?

The Rubin vase/profile illusion is an ambiguous figure/ground illusion. This is because it can be perceived either as two black faces looking at each other, in front of a white background, or as a white vase on a black background.

In the case of a figure/ground reversal one line can have two shapes. The shape of the contour formed depends on which side of the line is regarded as part of the figure. This is important, because the visual system represents or encodes objects primarily in terms of their contours. Also, elements that are close to one another or alike or homogeneous in certain respects tend to be grouped together. This is called grouping. The sudden reversal that you perceive may be due to your shift of attention on the shape of the contour. The observer’s “perceptual set” and individual interests can also bias the situation. Biasing the shapes or contours can make one interpretation stronger than the other one. As one can see in the three-dimensional model of the vase, which biases the vase.

There is no doubt that this particular illusion occurs involves higher cortical processing. This is because you have stored information in your brain that contains knowledge about vases and profiles.

Your brain needs to be able to interpret the patterns in your eye in terms of external objects. To do this your visual system needs to be able to distinguish objects (figure) from their background (ground). Most of the time this is relatively easy, but sometimes, as in the case of camouflage, it can be made much more difficult.

The vase/profile illusion is important because it shows that perception is not solely determined by an image formed on the retina. The spontaneous reversal that you observe illustrates the dynamic nature of subtle perceptual processes. These processes underscore how your brain organizes its visual environment.

Size Constancy

This scene depicts a larger man chasing a smaller man. Or does it?

The two men are absolutely identical.

What you see is not always what you perceive.

So What’s Going On?

This illustration by Stanford psychologist Roger Shepard suggests a three-dimensional scene with proper depth relationships.

Consistent with this, the man in the background appears to be further away from you than the person in the foreground. What is not consistent, however, is that the background figure is not proportionally smaller to its identical counterpart in the foreground.

When a figure normally recedes into the distance, it gets smaller, i.e., its visual angle gets smaller. Here, the background figure remains the same size (and same visual angle) as the foreground figure. Your visual system assumes that since both figures have the same visual angle, but are at differing distances, the one in the background must be larger. This demonstrates that what you see is not necessarily what you perceive.

Your visual system is constantly making inferences based on constraints derived from the regularities of your visual environment.

You can discover some of those normally hidden rules by playing with this demonstration. For example, if you move the background figure to the same elevation or height as the foreground figure, the size illusion disappears.

This is because, on a level surface, as objects recede into the distance, not only does their visual angle get smaller, but they also rise in the visual field in relation to the horizon.

Moon Illusion

The Moon Illusion occurs when the moon is at or near the horizon and reflects the fact that, in this position, the moon looks larger than it does when it is further up in the sky.

This is how the moon looks when it is further up in the sky.

This is the actual size of the moon. The illusion occurs when the moon is at the horizon and causes the moon to look larger than it actually is. While this illusion can be quite beautiful when the moon is full, it can be experienced with any phase of the moon and can be quite dramatic with a crescent moon.

You can prove for yourself that the moon on the horizon is not as large as it appears to be. Next time you experience the Moon Illusion, turn your back to the moon, bend over, and look at the moon through your legs. In this position, the Moon Illusion will disappear and you will see the moon as its actual size!

Question/ Purpose:

The purpose of this project is to learn more about Learning and Perception. We want to be able to understand why we think (and react) in a certain way and how our mind works.

Identify Variables:

Variables that may affect learning and perception are:

    1. Stimulus
    2. Experience


My hypothesis is that each stimulus initiates a new search and process session in our brain. During this process, our brain will attempt to look for a pre-recorded pattern that matches the stimulus signals. If such a pattern is found, brain assumes that another event, identical to the pre-recorded event is happening. Then it prepares our body and reacts based on that.

For example if we see a shiny floor, our brain searches our memory for shiny floor. If it finds a painful memory of the time that we slipped on a shiny slippery floor, it will think that “This must be slippery!” and make us alarmed and ready for reaction.

Experiment Design:

Repeat a new version of Pavlov experiment. The subject of your experiment can be your dog, cat or any other smart pet. Even a friend of yours can be the subject for this experiment.

Unconditioned stimulus can be pet food, chocolate, candy (or bad things like a kick or any other disturbing act like wetting the cat!, or a bad odor)

Conditioned stimulus can be a sound, a light (or any other audio, visual or sensory signal).

The reaction varies based on your subject and stimulus.

Materials and Equipment:

Depends on your experiment.

Results of Experiment (Observation):

Experiments are often done in series. A series of experiments can be done by changing one variable a different amount each time. A series of experiments is made up of separate experimental “runs.” During each run you make a measurement of how much the variable affected the system under study. For each run, a different amount of change in the variable is used. This produces a different amount of response in the system. You measure this response, or record data, in a table for this purpose. This is considered “raw data” since it has not been processed or interpreted yet. When raw data gets processed mathematically, for example, it becomes results.


No calculation is required for this project.

Summary of Results:

Summarize what happened. This can be in the form of a table of processed numerical data, or graphs. It could also be a written statement of what occurred during experiments.

It is from calculations using recorded data that tables and graphs are made. Studying tables and graphs, we can see trends that tell us how different variables cause our observations. Based on these trends, we can draw conclusions about the system under study. These conclusions help us confirm or deny our original hypothesis. Often, mathematical equations can be made from graphs. These equations allow us to predict how a change will affect the system without the need to do additional experiments. Advanced levels of experimental science rely heavily on graphical and mathematical analysis of data. At this level, science becomes even more interesting and powerful.


Using the trends in your experimental data and your experimental observations, try to answer your original questions. Is your hypothesis correct? Now is the time to pull together what happened, and assess the experiments you did.

Related Questions & Answers:

What you have learned may allow you to answer other questions. Many questions are related. Several new questions may have occurred to you while doing experiments. You may now be able to understand or verify things that you discovered when gathering information for the project. Questions lead to more questions, which lead to additional hypothesis that need to be tested.

Possible Errors:

If you did not observe anything different than what happened with your control, the variable you changed may not affect the system you are investigating. If you did not observe a consistent, reproducible trend in your series of experimental runs there may be experimental errors affecting your results. The first thing to check is how you are making your measurements. Is the measurement method questionable or unreliable? Maybe you are reading a scale incorrectly, or maybe the measuring instrument is working erratically.

If you determine that experimental errors are influencing your results, carefully rethink the design of your experiments. Review each step of the procedure to find sources of potential errors. If possible, have a scientist review the procedure with you. Sometimes the designer of an experiment can miss the obvious.


List your references here: