Distinguishing Top-Down From Bottom-Up Effects

In S. Biggs, M. Matthen & D. Stokes (eds.), Perception and Its Modalities. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
Abstract
The distinction between top-down and bottom-up effects is widely relied on in experimental psychology. However, there is an important problem with the way it is normally defined. Top-down effects are effects of previously-stored information on processing the current input. But on the face of it that includes the information that is implicit in the operation of any psychological process – in its dispositions to transition from some types of representational state to others. This paper suggests a way to distinguish information stored in that way from the kind of influence of prior information that psychologists are concerned to classify as a top-down effect. So-drawn, the distinction is not just of service to theoretical psychology. Asking about the extent of top-down processing is one way to pose some of the questions at issue in philosophical debates about cognitive penetrability – about the extent of the influence of cognitive states on perception. The existence of a theoretically-useful perception-cognition distinction has come under pressure, but even if it has to be abandoned, some of the concerns addressed in the cognitive penetrability literature can be recaptured by asking about the extent of top-down influences on any given psychological process. That formulation is more general, since it can be applied to any psychological process, not just those that are paradigmatically perceptual.
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