Photo of Eleanor J. Gibson

Eleanor J. Gibson

  • National Medal of Science
  • Behavioral And Social Science

For her conceptual insights in developing a theory of perceptual learning; and for achieving a deeper understanding of perceptual development in children and basic processes in reading.

At Smith College, Eleanor J. Gibson was drawn to psychology, particularly enjoying classes that were more experimentally focused. While receiving her master’s at Smith, Gibson was granted a year’s leave to pursue a doctorate at Yale. Gibson approached Robert Yerkes, hoping to work in his chimpanzee lab. Yerkes replied, “I have no women in my laboratory.” Gender barriers did not stop Gibson from pursuing her goal– she received her Ph.D. from Yale in 1938.

Working as a research associate at Cornell, Gibson used a simulated cliff in tests to show that babies could visually distinguish depth by the time they learn to crawl. The cliff was a wooden table with a strong plate glass extended on one edge. ”Children were put on the table top and coaxed to crawl out over the glass,” Life magazine reported in 1959. Of the 27 babies who left the center of the cliff, only three crawled onto the glass of the deep side, in spite of encouragement from their mothers.

The study’s findings show that perception is an essentially adaptive process, as Gibson put it, ”We perceive to learn, as well as learn to perceive.” It quickly became one of the most famous experiments in psychology, and photographs of the ”visual cliff” are still a staple in many psychology textbooks.

By Jen Santisi