Notes on the role of perception-action cycles in infant learning

“Together perception and action form functional systems around which adaptive behaviour develops. Perception is necessary both for planning actions and for guiding them towards their goals.” (von Hofsten 2016)

Extracts from  
Corbetta, D., Dimercurio, A., Wiener, R. F., Connell, J. P., & Clark, M. (2018). How Perception and Action Fosters Exploration and Selection in Infant Skill Acquisition. Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 55, pp. 1–29).

Perception as an active process

Perception is the process by which we gather information about the physical structure of, and events in, the environment. Perception makes sense of the continuous flow of sensory information received by the brain by recognising patterns within the flow of sensory signals.

Perception is an active process: it characterized by exploratory activities such as looking, listening, sniffing, tasting, and feeling (Gibson, 1966). Locomotion reveals the layout of the environment, manipulation reveals object properties, and social interaction is essential for person perception.

Perception-action loops and goal directed behavior

Joaquin Fuster defines the perception-action cycle as “the circular flow of information from the environment to sensory structures, to motor structures, back again to the environment, to sensory structures, and so on, during the processing of goal-directed behaviour.” Fuster 2013

“Each action causes changes in the environment which are processed by the organism's sensory hierarchy and lead to the generation of further action by its motor effectors. These actions cause new changes that are sensory analyzed and lead to a new action, and so the cycle continues. The efficient and timely coordination of the sensory and motor structures involved will ensure the organism's survival in a dynamic environment.”

Perception-action cycles in everyday actions

“In many day-to-day activities, fluent exchanges between perception and action occur in familiar environments with well-practiced tasks, where uncertainty about the action outcome is minimal.

In those situations, we are familiar with the parameters of the task, we know the environment, we know what to look for, we know how to act, and in most cases, we know how to respond to potential unpredictable events.

Such an in-tune process between the intended goal and perceiving and acting, however, is not always perfect, particularly in the case of learning a new task. Novice learners may not pick the relevant perceptual cues to achieve a goal; they may not be familiar with all the properties of the task context or object being manipulated; and they may have to figure out how to use their limbs and body in the specific context to achieve the intended goal.” Corbetta et al

Perception-action loops and embedded exploration and selection

“In many day-to-day activities, fluent exchanges between perception and action occur in familiar environments with well-practiced tasks, where uncertainty about the action outcome is minimal. In those situations, we are familiar with the parameters of the task, we know the environment, we know what to look for, we know how to act, and in most cases, we know how to respond to potential unpredictable events. For those daily, highly practiced skills, our mind and our body are usually in tune with the intended goal of the task.”

However learning new motor tasks is a process of figuring out out how to use movement to achieve a goal in a specific context, based on available information about the task and the environment.

Infants will repeat a new task many times allowing for repeated opportunities to use perceptual information to adapt their actions in pursuit of the present goals.

Corbetta et al (2018) argue that this infant learning is enhanced by the embedded processes of exploration (trying different variations of the behavior) and selection (reproducing what works).

These embedded exploration and selection processes provide the fundamental mechanism by which the discovery and formation of new behaviours occur.

“Via repeated cycles of perception and action, new skills form, existing behaviors are updated and refined, and the diversification of behavior unfolds as skills are applied to an increasing number of situations.

We argue that this repeating cycle of perception and action and the processes of exploration and selection embedded within provide meaningful experiences to create valuable and effective interactions within the environment, which ultimately will lead to tuning our interactions more closely to our intended goals.”

Perception and action and exploration and selection are important for the discovery of one’s own action capabilities, for the discovery of actions’ outcomes on the physical world, and for the provision of unique learning opportunities not only for acquiring knowledge about the world, but also for learning how to better act within it in the moment. This process involves a constant mapping between perception and action, in relation to the features of the environment and the goal to be attained."

Perception and action and the embedded processes of exploration (trying different variations of the behavior) and selection (reproducing what works) play a primary role in this rapid transition in skills.

  • Via repeated cycles of perception and action, new skills form, existing behaviors are updated and refined, and the diversification of behavior unfolds as skills are applied to an increasing number of situations.
  • Perception and action and exploration and selection are important for the discovery of one’s own action capabilities, for the discovery of actions’ outcomes on the physical world, and for the provision of unique learning opportunities not only for acquiring knowledge about the world, but also for learning how to better act within it in the moment. This process involves a constant mapping between perception and action, in relation to the features of the environment and the goal to be attained.

“As newborns use their available eye muscle strength and control to attend to objects or people moving through their space, they push their systems, bit by bit, to go farther, to see more and longer. These repeated cycles of moving and perceiving the consequences lead, over time, to sufficient control of head and neck muscles to lift the head and eyes upward, leading to new, interesting things to explore. Their efforts have cascading effects, enabling more and longer movements through greater distances, toward objects, people, and sounds that attract them. Bit by bit, the foundation takes shape and expands for discovering new concepts, consistencies, and motor control.” Ulrich 2010


References 

Corbetta, D., Dimercurio, A., Wiener, R. F., Connell, J. P., & Clark, M. (2018). How Perception and Action Fosters Exploration and Selection in Infant Skill Acquisition. Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 55, pp. 1–29).

Fuster, J. M. (2018). Upper processing stages of the perception-action cycle, (May 2004). doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.02.004

Oudeyer PY, Smith LB. How Evolution May Work Through Curiosity-Driven Developmental Process. Top Cogn Sci. 2016 Apr;8(2):492-502.

Ulrich B. D. (2010). Opportunities for early intervention based on theory, basic neuroscience, and clinical science. Physical therapy, 90(12), 1868–1880. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100040

von Hofsten C, Rosander K. The Development of Sensorimotor Intelligence in Infants. Adv Child Dev Behav. 2018;55:73-106. doi: 10.1016/bs.acdb.2018.04.003.

Epub 2018 May 21. Review. PubMed PMID: 30031439.