Action In Perception: Alva Noe

action in perception cover photo

In the words of the author: The main idea of this book is that  perceiving is a way of acting. Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do.


Think of a blind person tap-tapping his or her way around a cluttered space, perceiving that space by touch, not all at once, but through time, by skillful probing and movement. This is, or at least ought to be, our paradigm of what perceiving is….As perceivers we are masters of this sort of pattern of sensorimotor dependence. This mastery shows itself in the thoughtless automaticity with which we move our eyes, head and body in taking in what is around us.

Noe’s model emphasizes the brain’s dependence on the environment and body which he calls “the enactive approach”. Perceiving is a kind of skillful bodily activity…Perception is not a process in the brain, but a kind of skillful activity on the part of the animal as a whole. It follows from this model, that undeveloped sensorimotor skills impair perception. Perceptual experience is dependent on sensorimotor knowledge. Normal vision depends not only on movement of the body relative to the environment, but on self-actuated movement. This is why vision therapy is not successful when it attempts to isolate and treat a single facet of vision, ignoring the interdependence of visual skills, the associated body, and the person. Although he never uses the terminology of sensory integration, as a philosopher, he has developed this understanding of how we function as an organism. How things are experienced visually depends on more than merely optical processes

We move our eyes approximately four times a second when reading and even faster when investigating our surroundings. We are usually unaware of this sensorimotor act. When we view a scene or a face, we may think that our eyes are still, but they are moving to construct our perception. Our brains create the illusion that all we see is clear simultaneously, but the perception is a construction dependent on a sequence of rapid and accurate eye movements. Noe’s states:Vision is active; it is an active exploration of the world.


This matches the research of vision scientists John M. Findlay and Iain D. Gilchrist who state that the regular sampling of the environment with eye movements is the normal process of visual attention. Our fascination with the brain and its complexity and skill has caused a tendency for the “lower level skills” such as sensorimotor proficiencies and oculomotor skills to be disregarded, but research is demonstrating how subtle ocular motor deficits can have profound effects.

Noe recognizes James J. Gibson with the following quote. “We are told that vision depends on the eye, which is connected to the brain. I shall suggest that natural vision depends on the eyes in the head on a body supported by the ground, the brain being only the central organ of a complete visual system.”

Alva Noe was a 2012 presenter at the College Of Vision Developement Annual Meeting in Fort Worth Texas.

Alva Noe on Visual Presence