Eleanor J. Gibson and the Visual Cliff

Eleanor J. Gibson (1910 - 2002)

Eleanor J. Gibson (1910 – 2002)

On December 7, 1910, American psychologist Eleanor Jack Gibson was born. Gibson focused on reading development and perceptual learning in infants and toddlers. In the 1960s and 1970s Gibson, with her husband James J. Gibson, created the Gibsonian ecological theory of development which emphasized how important perception was because it allows humans to adapt to their environments. Perhaps her most well-known contribution to psychology was the “visual cliff“, which studied depth perception and visual or motor impairments in both human and animal species.

Eleanor Gibson earned her M.S. degree in 1933 from Smith College in Massachusetts. After finishing her education, Gibson taught at Smith College. However, after her husband was drafted by the Air Force, Eleanor and their children accopanied him to Texas and later to California where Eleanor mainly was a homemaker. She later went back to Smith College and then left with her family for Cornell University where Gibson became research associate. There, she created the ‘Visual Cliff‘ together with Richard Walk, professor at Cornell.

Back then, Eleanor Gibson conducted a study on infant-mother olfactory role in bonding in goats. She washed one of them right after birth before the mother had the chance to lick it. While she had just finished washing one, its twin emerged from the mother. This led Gibson to quickly put the kid on a high camera stand nearby. She was suprised when the infant stood on the ledge and didn’t fall off. Gibson discovered the visual cliff and started doing further research on perceptual learning. Gibson then came up with a study researching the depth perception of rats. She and Richard Walk started to construct an artificial cliff. It was a sheet of plexiglass that was covered by cloth with a checkerboard pattern which was held above the ground with clamps and rods. One side of the cloth was placed just beneath the glass and on the other side the cloth was placed 4 feet below. They then watched what side the rats descended to. To Gibson’s amazement the dark-reared rats acted the same way as rats reared in the light and avoided the deep side. Gibson then tested lambs, goats, chickens, dogs, pigs, monkeys and newborn children on a larger apparatus which led to the same results. The performed tests by Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk led to the assumption that perception of depth was innate in many species but not all. Kittens that were raised in the dark would walk indiscriminately on both sides of the visual cliff, therefore learning from the environment had to occur.

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