James Jerome Gibson

An American psychologist known for his work on visual perception.

James Jerome Gibson proposed a theory of vision that was a first of its kind. He suggested that visual perception was the direct detection of environmental invariances, and that visual perception did not require inference or information processing.

Gibson was born on January 27, 1904, in McConnelsville, Ohio to Thomas and Gertrude Gibson. James Gibson had two younger brothers and the family traveled for his father's job as a surveyor for the railroads until they settled in Wilmette, a Chicago suburb. He started his undergraduate career at Northwestern University in 1921, but transferred to Princeton after only one year. He earned his B.A. in philosophy from Princeton in 1925 and stayed as a graduate student studying psychology after taking a psychology class his senior year that sparked his interest in the subject. Gibson earned his M.A. from Princeton in 1926, followed by his Ph.D. in 1928. His dissertation research focused on memory and learning.

After earning his Ph.D., Gibson taught psychology at Smith College. At Smith, Gibson met Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), a proponent of Gestalt psychology. Koffka's influence shaped Gibson's future research and practice. During this time, Gibson married Eleanor Jack Gibson (1910–2002), who became a major psychologist in her own right. Together they had two sons.

Gibson served in World War II beginning in 1942. During his time in the service, he moved from captain to lieutenant colonel. Gibson also served as the director of the Motion Picture Research Unit in the Aviation Psychology Program. He developed tests used to screen potential pilots and in doing so, he observed that more information could be drawn from moving pictures, such as film, than static ones. This observation sparked his interest in visual perception.

After the war, Gibson returned to Smith for a brief period before moving to Cornell in 1949. In 1950, he published The Perception of the Visual World which outlined his ground-breaking theory of visual perception. In this publication, Gibson asserted that texture gradients on the ground are linked to similar gradients found on the retina in the eye. These complementary gradients allow humans to have depth perception. He further suggested that a new branch of science, called ecological optics, was needed to study perceptions in more detail. His next book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, outlined this new discipline in detail.

Gibson's theory was that of direct perception, which means that humans directly perceive their environment through stimulation of the retina. Traditionally, and especially by Gestalt psychologists, perception was believed to be indirect. According to this theory, humans do not directly perceive their environment. It is only through sensory stimulation over time that they learn what is in their environment, and that they perceive much more than mere sensory input.



Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Gibson, James J. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1966.

Schiller, Peter H. and Edward J. Tehovnik. Vision and the Visual System. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Norman, J. Farley, et al. “Solid Shade Discrimination From Vision and Haptics: Natural Objects, (Capsicum Annuum) and Gibson's ‘Feelies’.” Experimental Brain Research 222, no. 3 (2012): 321–332.

Withagen, Rob, and Anthony Chemero. “Affordances and Classification: On the Significance of a Sidebar in James Gibson's Last Book.” Philosophical Psychology 25, no. 4 (2012): 521–537.


Hochberg, Julian. “James Jerome Gibson (1904–1979).” http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/gibson-james.pdf (accessed July 17, 2015).

Uiversity of Connecticut Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action. “What is Ecological Psychology?” http://ione.psy.uconn.edu (accessed July 17, 2015).