Measuring the World: Olfaction as a Process Model of Perception

In Daniel J. Nicholson & John Dupré (eds.), Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. pp. 337-356 (2018)
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How much does stimulus input shape perception? The common-sense view is that our perceptions are representations of objects and their features and that the stimulus structures the perceptual object. The problem for this view concerns perceptual biases as responsible for distortions and the subjectivity of perceptual experience. These biases are increasingly studied as constitutive factors of brain processes in recent neuroscience. In neural network models the brain is said to cope with the plethora of sensory information by predicting stimulus regularities on the basis of previous experiences. Drawing on this development, this chapter analyses perceptions as processes. Looking at olfaction as a model system, it argues for the need to abandon a stimulus-centred perspective, where smells are thought of as stable percepts, computationally linked to external objects such as odorous molecules. Perception here is presented as a measure of changing signal ratios in an environment informed by expectancy effects from top-down processes.

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Ann-Sophie Barwich
Indiana University, Bloomington


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