A Note on Recognition

Helen M. Clarke
University of Kansas

The explanation of recognition is by no means a settled problem in psychology, and yet it is by no means a new problem. One is surprised at the number of studies that one finds, and the classification of theories. There is room for only the merest reference to these here. Perhaps the oldest theory is that recognition consists of the conscious comparison of a percept with a memory image; another finds the differentia of the process in the feeling of familiarity; a third in a quality of knownness which cannot be further interrogated; a fourth in the arousal of associates; and a fifth in motor adjustment. There are many explanations which may not come exactly under any of these heads, but are more or less closely related to them. One is tempted to guess that the first named type of theory is a deduction from the usual definition of recognition without appeal to introspection. It is mere common sense to suppose that recognition must be the comparison of a percept with a memory image. But as a matter of fact the reported cases of such comparison are so few as to be negligible. The presence of the feeling of familiarity can readily be verified in many cases but not in all. To accept the third view is to fall back on the unknowable and give up the problem. The association theory is based on many observations, but the surer and easier recognition is, the less are associations to be observed. The motor adjustment theory is very attractive, but its limits are too narrow.

In spite of the bewildering number of conflicting views, there are some facts which may be assumed with little fear of contradiction from any one who has read the investigations of the last ten years or more. Among these are the following:

The conscious contents constituting recognition gradually decrease as the percept becomes more familiar and recognition becomes easier and more accurate. When this change has been

( 176) carried very far we have an automatic and almost unconscious process called recognition. The details of this process of shortening have been observed. Titchener[1] compares it to the change from impulsive to reflex action. The affective part of recognition is weakened and gives place to indifference, the organic sensations are disregarded, we take the thing for granted, and recognition becomes cognition. We may recognize ideas as well as percepts ;[2] and even an idea of imagination, once entertained, may be recognized on later appearance. Whether or not perceptual and ideational recognition are the same is not so well agreed upon. The apprehension of the new is a positive experience[3] and not a mere absence of recognition. Recognition, like any other experience, is influenced somewhat by the imaginal type and other characteristics of the individual. Recognition comes under the sway of the Aufgabe.[4] The distinction between correct recognition and memory on the one hand and illusion of either on the other, is secondary and practical rather than psychological. If this were not the case, the study of illusions of perception could not throw light, as it has done, on normal perception.

My own view of recognition is based on a long series of experiments performed in the Cornell laboratory and already reported on.[5] In the main series were used letters from the New York point alphabet for the blind. The observers received the stimulus tactually and reacted by pressing a key when it was recognized. The reaction times were kept. The main conclusion drawn at the time is one which might be

( 177) stated in the negative way : that recognition is not an unanalysable content as some have claimed; that in every case the state of consciousness either can be analysed explicitly into sensational and affective elements or can be traced backward through the process of shortening to a state which can be so analysed.

So much for what recognition is not. Are there grounds here for even a hint as to what it is? Further study of the reports bring out the following facts : The imaginal type of the observer shows itself clearly in the recognitive consciousness, and especially in the early stages of it when it is rich in content. One observer visualizes the point letter itself and the written letter corresponding, and is aided in recognition by association with certain colors. Another describes the letter in words. Another frequently reports a visual image of a certain location in his scheme of the alphabet, and at the same time organic and kinaesthetic sensations, feeling of familiarity, and pleasantness. But along with these differences there are some striking similarities. All alike show in marked degree the dropping out process and the approach to affective neutrality, running parallel with the increased accuracy and speed of recognition. But not only so; all show a change in one definite direction. As the images and feelings drop out, recognition, for all the observers, tends toward the one type in which the perception of the letter calls up its name and nothing else is present in consciousness. This report is made much oftener than any other, and much oftener in the second half of any series than in the first half. Moreover, toward the last of the series even this disappears and the touching of the letter sets off the reaction without even the appearance of the name. More and more frequently occur such reports as the following : The name and the pressing of the key occurred at the same time. The name came to consciousness after the reaction. I touched the letter and reacted automatically.

What, if anything, does this show? Not that all recognition passes through a stage in which it is mediated by a mere name, nor that all recognition becomes a motor reaction; but that given the present Aufgabe, recognition for the various

( 178) observers tends to approximate this one type through practice. I should say Aufgaben for there are two—one implicit and one explicit. The normal reaction to a word or letter is to pronounce it. We may be said to act under a more or less permanent Aufgabe to read what is written.. It may easily be supposed that some other form of experiment would call out a different type of reaction. But in addition to this natural reaction, the experiment requires the formation of a closer and closer association between the felt-letter and another kind of reaction—the pressing of the key. The indications are that if the experiment had been carried far enough the habit would have been completely formed, and the pressing of the key would have been the most important thing in consciousness, if not all that was distinguishable. Fortunately we need not merely speculate on this. There have been careful studies of such processes as that of learning to use a typewriter.[6] They show not only the shortening process, but a final stage in which letters and whole words and phrases are reacted to as wholes mechanically. The recognition comes to consist in the motor reaction. This is the experience of the pianist, the skilled performer on any instrument, the expert in the use of tools. This is probably true of the animal which reacts characteristically to a familiar experience. We say that a

dog recognizes his master and his home ; he gives every evidence of recognition, and this evidence is a motor reaction.

He may and probably does have feeling and organic sensations, but we are not justified in assuming ideational thought or even the mere presence of memory images.[7]

Introspection finds pleasantness and the feeling of familiarity in many cases of recognition, but it also traces their gradual loss.

Calkins[8] and others have pointed out that the new is recognized as new, just as the old is recognized as old. Both are

( 179) positive experiences and neither is the mere absence of the other. Titchener says : Every sensory stimulus of moderate intensity arouses a widespread organic reaction.[9] The feeling of familiarity has been analyzed into feeling and organic sensations. It is agreed that this feeling diminishes as the experience is repeated. There seem to be two possibilities then. The feeling of familiarity may be absent in the new, may arise perhaps suddenly when the new becomes slightly familiar, and may gradually disappear as familiarity—not the feeling of familiarity—increases and recognition approaches cognition. Can this sequence be verified by experiment? Is it true that the new lacks the organic reaction and affective tone and can we find by experiments the exact degree of knownness at which this arises? If so, this should appear in the experiments with point letters. They show, on the contrary, that the organic and affective consciousness is most rich at the very beginning and decreases gradually. There is a logical objection as well as the experimental. What is the new? It is admitted that recognition may be of varying degrees of definiteness. We recognize a thing as belonging to a class before we identify it individually. Moreover, a- false recognition is psychologically recognition. We live under a constant Aufgabe to recognize, to classify, and we do so consciously or unconsciously. Most of the mistakes of children can be attributed to the working of this principle. It may be that the absolutely new, which is not recognized even vaguely and generally, may lack any feeling of familiarity. If it ever occurred it would almost certainly have so widespread and intense an organic reaction of some kind that any feebler feelings would be hard to attend to. But the wholly unclassifiable practically never occurs ; and the new in the ordinary sense, being not wholly new, has the feeling of familiarity. It has been often shown that it is the vaguely familiar, that which baffles and refuses to be made definite, which calls out the strongest feeling of familiarity.

But if the motor and organic reaction play an important but decreasing part in recognition, do they exhaust the recognitive consciousness? Is imagery merely incidental or may it play

( 180) an essential part? If we reply in the negative and rely upon motor reaction alone, it may be that we have merely examined a type of recognition in which the Aufgabe is to react and in which therefore the motor reaction plays an important part. How do we recognize a word? If it is a substantive and signifies anything picturable, a visualizer may identify it at first by means of visual images. Any kind of imagery may be used or several kinds at once. But the imagery tends to wear down to the purely verbal and in many cases it is impossible to find anything in consciousness but the word itself.[10] In reading, the normal reaction to a word is its mental pronunciation, and recognition approaches this as a limit.

If I should hazard the attempt to reduce these thoughts within the limits of one brief statement, it would be something like this : Recognition is the total reaction to the stimulus or idea to be recognized. With the relatively unfamiliar it is complex, largely organic, affectively toned, and determined partly by the type of the observer. As the stimulus becomes more familiar, it approaches simplicity and affective neutrality, the imaginal type depending on the nature of the Aufgabe to recognize ; hence on the part that the particular stimulus plays in common experience.


  1. E. B. Titchener, An Outline of Psychology. 1910, p. 70.
  2. R. B. Owen, Recognition : A Logical and Experimental Study. Psychological Monographs, XX (No. 86), 1915; W. B. Pillsbury, Essentials of Psychology. 1911, p. 207.
  3. E. B. Titchener, A Text-book of Psychology. 1910, p. 410; E. B. Titchener, Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-Processes. 1909, p. 179; M. W. Calkins, An Introduction to Psychology, 1908, p.199.
  4. N. Ach, Ueber die Willenstätigkeit and das Denken. 1905; E. B. Titchener, Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought-Processes. 1909, pp. 12off.
  5. Helen M. Clarke, Conscious Attitudes. American Journal of Psychology, XXII, 1911, pp. 214-249.
  6. W. F. Book, The Psychology of Skill, with Special Reference to its Acquisition in Typewriting. University of Montana Studies in Psychology, I, 1908, pp. 188.
  7. C. H. Judd, What is Perception? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, VI, 1909, p. 36.
  8. M. W. Calkins, An Introduction to Psychology. 1908, p. 258.
  9. E. B. Titchener, A Text-book of Psychology. 1910, p. 407.
  10. C. H. Judd. Ibid, p. 36.

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