Innovative Learning

Information Pickup Theory (J. Gibson)

The theory of information pickup suggests that perception depends entirely upon information in the "stimulus array" rather than sensations that are influenced by cognition. Gibson proposes that the environment consists of affordances (such terrain, water, vegetation, etc.) which provide the clues necessary for perception. Furthermore, the ambient array includes invariants such as shadows, texture, color, convergence, symmetry and layout that determine what is perceived. According to Gibson, perception is a direct consequence of the properties of the environment and does not involve any form of sensory processing.

Information pickup theory stresses that perception requires an active organism. The act of perception depends upon an interaction between the organism and the environment. All perceptions are made in reference to body position and functions (proprioception). Awareness of the environment derives from how it reacts to our movements.

Information pickup theory opposes most traditional theories of cognition that assume past experience plays a dominant role in perceiving. It is based upon Gestalt theories that emphasize the significance of stimulus organization and relationships.


Information pickup theory is intended as a general theory of perception, although it has been developed most completely for the visual system. Gibson (1979) discusses the implications of the theory for still and motion picture research. Neisser (1976) presents a theory of cognition that is strongly influenced by Gibson.


Much of Gibson's ideas about perception were developed and applied in the context of aviation training during WWII. The critical concept is that pilots orient themselves according to characteristics of the ground surface rather than through vestibular/kinesthetic senses. In other words, it is the invariants of terrain and sky that determine perception while flying, not sensory processing per se. Therefore, training sequences and materials for pilots should always include this kind of information.


  1. To facilitate perception, realistic environmental settings should be used in instructional materials.
  2. Since perception is an active process, the individual should have an unconstrained learning environment.
  3. Instruction should emphasize the stimulus characteristics that provide perceptual cues.


Gibson, J.J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gibson, J.J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (eds.), Perceiving, Acting and Knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Neisser, U. (1976). Cognition and Reality. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Related Websites

For a detailed understanding of Gibson’s work, see the “Purple Perils”, a selection of his unpublished essays at
An annotated bibliography of Gibson’s published articles can be found at