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2 – Why Perspicacity?


Keenness of mental perception and understanding; discernment; penetration.

Knowing versus Seeing

In studying human performance, I have been most curious about expertise or skill; and my original intuitions came from my own experiences in sports. My initial motivation was to discover the 'magical' attribute that separated me from the really excellent athletes. At the start I tended to frame the questions as "What do they know that I don't know?"  But as I began to explore deeper, I quickly reframed the question to "What do they see that I don't see?" Or more generally, "what do they sense; or what are they attuned to that I am not sensitive to?"  This change of perspective was strongly influenced by Eleanor Gibson's work on perceptual learning and de Groot's work on expertise in chess.

I don't think it is necessarily an either/or proposition with respect to knowing versus seeing. I expect that both knowing and seeing are involved, but there is an important difference between these two ways of framing the research question. Approaches focused on knowing tend to see expertise as a result of accrual of knowledge that can be 'added to' the information available through perception that allows better mental computations.  The general implication is that experts have a more extensive data base to tap into.

However, approaches based on seeing, tend to see expertise as reflecting something akin to a coordinate transformation in mathematics (for example a log transform). The benefits of coordinate transformations are that they can make certain patterns easier to pick-up.  A good example is work on visual skill involved in avoiding collisions, landing aircraft, or catching baseballs. This work illustrates that when you look at visual perception in terms of angular coordinates (angles and expansion rates), rather than Euclidean (x,y,z) coordinates then the computations needed to brake, land or catch a ball become relatively simple.

This is why I have chosen to title this blog Perspicacity. As a scientist, the focus of my work is to discover how the underlying coordinate systems or representations that experts use are different from those of non-experts. As a designer, the focus of my work is to create representations (i.e., interfaces) that help people to see phenomena in ways that are more similar to what the experts are seeing. The design goal is to create perspicacious systems.

The other reason that I like the term is that perspicacity suggests an intimacy between perception and cognition (between seeing and knowing) that I think has been lost in a reductionist cognitive science where perception and cognition are seen as independent or at least loosely coupled modules in an information processing system. I believe that a parsing that treats perception and cognition as different phenomena breaks the system in such a way that it will not be possible to put the pieces back together again to achieve a complete understanding of human experience.


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