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The Experimental Phenomenology of “perception”.
A collective reflection on the present and future of this approach

Ivana Bianchi (Department of Humanities, University of Macerata)
Roberto Burro (Department of Human Sciences, University of Verona)

The Experimental Phenomenology of Perception is part of an important tradition in the research into psychology in Italy, undoubtedly inspired by and connected to Gestalt Psychology – despite some specific theoretical differences (Kanizsa, & Caramelli, 1988; Sambin, 1980; Smith, 1988; Verstegen, 2000; Zanforlin, 2004; Zanforlin, Sinico, 2004, 2005).

Independently of whether Gaetano Kanizsa, Paolo Bozzi and Giovanni Bruno Vicario used the expression “the experimental phenomenology of perception” or not to refer to their own approach (and in effect only Paolo Bozzi used and defended this expression overtly), these three names are the first that come to mind as representatives of this school for the generation of researchers into perception which I also belong to. The names of other scholars will of course also immediately emerge, in an order that is most likely affected by the geographical origin of whoever is compiling the list: Riccardo Luccio, Walter Gerbino, Tiziano Agostini, Mario Zanforlin, Osvaldo da Pos, Luigi Burigana, Alberto Argenton, Manfredo Massironi and Ugo Savardi…

Each of them worked according to their own personal interpretation of the approach. They did not shy away from the differences between them concerning certain specific theoretical or methodological aspects or their willingness towards integrating the perspectives and ideas of other approaches in the Cognitive Sciences. The various different nuances have often been warmly debated but there is still a common ground which is evident as compared to other schools of Psychology. This common ground can maybe be summarized as follows: a careful investigation of the structure of phenomena is the starting point for all of these Maestri and comes before we can talk of “perceptual processing”, or “the physiological conditions of perceptual experience” or anything else, if ever.  For some of them in fact, a careful investigation of the structure of phenomena is not only the starting point but it is also the final objective.

Articles and books are fortunately available and it is therefore possible to study in detail exactly what these Maestri meant by “carrying out a careful analysis of the structure of the human perceptual experience” (or of perceptual phenomena), both in terms of theory and methodology. These theoretical premises and methodologies have been rigorously forged and meticulously discussed and are part of a tradition of thought that has already been laid out, even though both theory and methodologies can obviously be developed further!

Is this the only way in which the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception can contribute to contemporary Cognitive Sciences? Or, to put it in another way: is this a complete exploration of how a careful analysis of the structure of phenomena can be important?

The “mosaic” we present here has been created in order to answer these questions. A number of researchers working in different areas of Psychology, Language Studies, Philosophy, and Art were consulted. This was done in the context of a symposium entitled “The experimental study of perception from a phenomenological perspective: from present to future”, held in Macerata on the 6th-7th of April 2022 and dedicated to Ugo Savardi.

All of the people interviewed are familiar with Experimental Phenomenology of perception or, in general, Gestalt Psychology, either because they have done or still do research in these areas, or because they have encountered it in joint projects or at conferences, or by means of reading about it. We asked each of them to provide a brief message (90 seconds) explaining why they considered Experimental Phenomenology to be relevant to their field of study.

All these messages form the “tiles” which were then put together to form a mosaic and we think the result makes a thought-provoking picture. If you take time to listen to the messages in each tile, they will certainly prompt you to reflect on a number of things. Here are some suggestions for reading this mosaic, inspired by one possible grouping of the ideas expressed.

i) Some tiles focus on the contribution of the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception in terms of methodology. If we pay attention carefully to phenomena, we can discover amazing new things (Marco Bertamini). Phenomenology is the starting point of any study of perception (Marco Bertamini, Daniele Zavagno, Rossana Actis Grosso, Elena Capitani). If it is combined with Psychophysics, it allows rigorously controlled experimental set ups to study how and why we perceive the world (Daniele Zavagno). It enables rigorous observation conditions to be established which are phenomenologically informed, giving the participants opportunities to formulate their responses without being in a forced choice condition (Michael Kubovy). The Experimental phenomenology of perception makes it possible to study subjects’ responses in relation to how a condition appears to him or her (known as “Phenomenological Psychophysics”), rather than focusing on the physical conditions of a stimulus, as in traditional Psychophysics (Roberto Burro). It combines multiple methods and this leads to new questions (Joost van de Weijer). The inter-observation method can be successfully extended to analyses of written texts and interactions, thus offering researchers a new method in conversational research (Andrzej Zuczkowski, Ilaria Riccioni, Ramona Bongelli). The experimental phenomenology of perception can be used to develop new training programs, for instance in Sport Psychology, to improve athletes’ performance based on their perception of certain characteristics relating to an “optimally performed movement” (Tiziano Agostini). Today, we can also combine the it with information about brain activation (Marco Bertamini) or use it as a non-invasive window to study brain mechanisms (Simone Gori).

ii) Other tiles focus on the contribution of the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception to the investigation of the expressive features of the world. We can use it to analyze human aesthetic experiences in order to discover, for example, what makes an artwork appealing (Alessandro Soranzo, Daniele Zavagno); it scientifically formalizes the layer of qualitative experience which is central to current debates on Art as developed by art historians (Ian Verstegen). It allows us to understand, for instance, what makes a hat striking, traditional or modern, and as such it is useful in product design and development (Elena Capitani). And it can also help in definitions of the features of a “restorative environment”, something which is relevant for Ambient Psychology (Margherita Pasini). Or we can understand better why a particular perceived configuration, for instance an incongruity or a causal relationship, is comical – and this is of interest both for studies on humor and animation design (Giulia Parovel, Carla Canestrari). It is also central to the definition of “user experience” in the domain of computer interaction design (Rossana Actis Grosso).

iii) Yet other tiles regard how the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception (which centres on how content is experienced by humans) can clarify the perceptual grounding of linguistic conceptualization and categorization (Dirk Geeraertz). For instance, sameness, similarity, diversity and opposition are primal perceptual relationships which are studied in the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception, but they are central to categorization and language use too (Ivana Bianchi). Similarly, salience, comparison and contrast as related to human experience are classic areas of investigation for the Experimental Phenomenology of Perception, but they are also of interest in the field of  cognitive semantics with respect to the choice of language resources relating to those processes (Carita Paradis).

iv) Another group of tiles concern how Experimental Phenomenology can be useful in the exploration of people’s “perception” of a process or situation, that is, how it appears to them, and what their representation of it is. The importance of this has been emphasized in relation to a variety of areas of research in the field of Psychology. In Psychometrics, for instance, it can be relevant to be more aware of the significance of participants’ feelings and attitudes towards a test (i.e. how it appears to them or its face validity) and Experimental Phenomenology provides ways of emphasizing the importance of this (Carlo Chiorri). In the context of the Psychology of Safety, it can help us to understand how a situation that led to an accident was really represented in the mind of the operator before the accident occurred (Fabrizio Bracco). In the Psychology of risk and traffic, it can help us to understand how a situation is represented in terms of “risk affordances” by a non-expert, and to compare this with the representation of experts (Federica Biassoni). In the study of insight problem solving, it can help us to understand how a problem is initially presented in problem solvers’ minds (which elements are relevant and which are initially disregarded) and how this representation can change during the process of searching for the solution (Erika Branchini). And it also makes it possible to investigate from a phenomenological perspective the problem solvers’ perception of being on the right or wrong track as exemplified in the “Aha” moment (Amory Danek). More in general, Experimental Phenomenology can support psychological studies of the perception of how well a process is going (feelings of rightness, effectiveness, and the subjective perception of “certainty or uncertainty) in the metacognitive control processes relating to reasoning and decision making, as well as problem solving (Linden Ball). Outside the context of the laboratory, this approach is useful to help us understand people’s representations of personal and interpersonal situations, and to suggest changes that are at the core of psychotherapeutical interventions (Gerhard Stemberger).

v) Finally, there are tiles which suggest that Experimental Phenomenology can be important in the field of Philosophy on various levels: from understanding how the world is “given” to human beings (Carla Danani) to providing new ways of looking at the world of phenomena and noticing details which stimulate philosophers to consider things in a new light (Arianna Fermani); and from highlighting the failures of the fit between what we think we experience and how our experience of such things is really configured (Richard Davies) to making us challenge our basic cognitive forms (Roberto Casati).

In conclusion, the much-needed fresh impetus that emerges from this mosaic lights the way towards a new chapter in Psychology known as “grounded cognition” (e.g. Barsalou, 2008, 2010; Fisher & Zwann, 2008; Foglia & Wilson, 2013; Matheson & Barsalou, 2018). This might add to the research that has already been done and that which is being developed by anchoring cognition on motor and perceptual processing at either a brain or behavioural level, as it will be possible instead to anchor “cognition” (with the various meanings ascribed to this word above) on a detailed, methodologically rigorous analysis of the experienced structure of the phenomena.


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