If you don't know anything about trees and plants, all you see in the forest is a bunch of trees. But if you know the names and appearances of different plants, you might see oaks, elms, pines etc. Similarly, when you hear a foreign language, you just hear sounds that have no meaning and that you cannot remember, but if you know the language, you hear the individual words and the meaning they convey. If you look at a crowd of unfamiliar people, you see a crowd but if there is one person you know in the crowd, that person will stand out in your perception.

It seems to me that a general feature of our cognition is that we organize our perception by learning categories/patterns/prototypes. The undifferentiated totality of our sensory input is presented in our awareness as a multitude of known objects. As we learn more about a certain subject, for instance a language or about trees or about guitars or whatever, we acquire new categories that facilitates our perception which allows us to be more discriminate in our perception and in our memory. If I visit someone who has a guitar in his or her home, I might notice and also remember that the guitar is a sunburst fender stratocaster with a 70's type neck, whereas my friend who does not know anything about guitar might struggle to remember even that there was a guitar.

What is the name of this general phenomenon, this basic aspect of our cognition?

I have come across the term "acquired distinctiveness", for instance in this paper: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

But that term seems to refer to a particular type of experimental paradigm in cognitive science rather than the phenomenon itself. Is there a broad, conceptual term for this feature of cognition?

  • 1
    Something related to 'Salience'? Through recognition / memory?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:46
  • Yes, salience is a term for describing how certain objects stand out in our awareness and there is lots of research on salience. But it's not synonymous with the phenomenon I'm interested in, though salience might be used to describe part of my question (i.e. "as we learn new concepts, these concepts become more salient in our awareness").
    – JonB
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:59
  • Since you seem to speak of a general ability for much of cognition, perception, and categories being updatable, you might like Sellars and the manifest and scientific images. He argued our basic categories can change as we learn more about the world. For someone like Kant, we are simply stuck in unchangeable categories like Euclidean space and time. Known “for his proposal that psychological concepts are like theoretical concepts”. plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars
    – J Kusin
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 16:37
  • Your cognitive science's examples are possible via image schema which is inspired from Kant's empirical (impure) a posteriori concepts' schemata... Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 5:55
  • There's also post-cognitive recognition which describes becoming hyper-aware of something only after having your attention initially drawn to it. Like "I never heard of shoegaze until yesterday, but now I've heard it said on the radio 3 times in the past 24 hours!" A term like this (which one might not know is a genre of music) may be unintuitive as to its meaning, and deemed irrelevant on a day-to-day basis, but giving it some attention once in context makes you aware of it going forward, even if it was always around before. (Opposite of "blissfully unaware", perhaps.)
    – Wyck
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 14:03

5 Answers 5


I'm answering the question myself as I believe I have found the answer.

One name for the phenomenon I'm asking about seems to be "categorical perception" (CP), which seems to be a suitably descriptive name: https://psychology.fandom.com/wiki/Categorical_perception

It seems to me that according to this model, our sensory input is organized by categories that might be innate (such as human faces and perhaps, to some extent, colors) or learned. These phenomena (learned CP vs. innate CP) have been studied in various research paradigms, but it seems to me that there is a broad agreement about that CP is a fundamental aspect of our cognition/sensory processing, so it seems to fit quite well with what I was asking for.

My idea about certain things standing out in our field of awareness, i.e. becoming more salient, is perhaps more of a logical consequence of the CP theory but I think that it has been studied for instance in the area of color perception and emotional experience (as outlined by Lisa Feldman-Barrett in her book How emotions are made). This aspect of the phenomenon (the salience aspect) is also a basic phenomenological observation that I think we all can make from our own lives. I think most of us have experiences of, for instance, watching a film och reading a book a second time, years after the first time, and now experiencing how certain details and references has other layers of meaning to us now relating to things we have learned during these years. I'm certain that phenomenological philosophers have studied this, but I have been unable to find such inquiries.

Please comment on my answer if you disagree with any part it.

  • Oh that book, "How Emotions Are Made" is so good! Yes, seeing things again after a while is interesting. The change is in us, how we see. You could probably do some research into this area, and explain to people how much of 'reality' their (unconscious) cognition shapes things!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 10:03
  • You might consider the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Faces are a good example, because we seem to have hard-wired architecture for this, with babies responding differently to a simple mask of two dots and a line even before they can focus. Emotions as categories are highly culturally varied, although we can look to physiological factors like sensation of blood withdrawal from the gut associated with fight-flight response
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 12:23
  • 1
    Re your "a second time, years after the first time, and now experiencing how certain details and references has other layers of meaning to us now relating to things we have learned during these years", see a recent post about the very similar phenomena... Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 19:00

Knowing the names and categories associated with any field would seem to be dependent on pattern recognition. So, perhaps that should be the general name of this phenomenon. For example, in order to master the ability to name all the various kinds of trees,you would need to be able to recognize the characteristic leaf forms and/ or flower and seed forms and attributes, bark kinds and textures and so on.

So learning the various species names, genus names, family names and so on of plants, since it involves perceptual attention to, and recognition of, subtlety of detail, would augment your general richness of perception of plants, allowing you to recognize more and more of their patterns and characteristics. I think this applies to any field of investigation.

  • Yeah, I had all the trees and many of the plants down where I used to live. Still learning to recognize them where I moved to years ago now. But the names are far after the fact in recognition. Sometimes I have noticed a plant for years and only later found out the name. Could spot it out of the corner of my eye without even looking through. I used to walk in areas with poison ivy wearing sandals without even slowing down. Eventually the perception is just that easy. (It grows where I live now, too.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 10:16

This is memorization through association.

A well known example is the Mind Palace. This was popularized in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes was reputed to have a fanatastic memory due to this process. It really works (though possibly not to the extent of a Sherlock Holmes). The process involves forming an association between a geometrical memory (of rooms in a palace) with the thing to be remembered. Then you can mentally walk down the familiar halls and roooms of this palace, and go to the spot you have left the information about each topic you have saved. To store memories you go (mentally) to a room and put the item to be remembered in that room.

With your examples you are using an association between different functions of your mind. Or, if you prefer a bio-physiological-chemical explanation, between different processes and structures in your brain. There are several parts of your brain that remember names, categories, faces, colors, smells, sounds, etc. If you can get a memory to be based in two or more of these parts, then that memory will be more readily available and easier to retain.

There is research in the "works" link about how this process produces more of certain types of chemicals and enhances certain brain structures. But that seems rather far from the name of the phenomenon.

So knowing the name of a thing means you are able to bring an association between the liguistic portion of your mind and the image-oriented portion. Knowing the color and the shape brings an association between those portions. A familiar face brings in an association with the face recognition portion. And so on with various combinations.

There are other forms such association can take. There is a method of teaching called multi modal. The idea here is to bring the information in through multiple different forms. Typically school students are encouraged to listen and watch. Multi modal learning encourages them to learn through as many channels as reasonably possible. So this will incude watching and listening as usual in a lecture. But also taking notes, drawing pictures, performing exploratory activities, doing physical motions, examining objects, tasting or smelling things, etc. The theory is that information that comes in multiple forms through multiple learning channels will form multiple impressions in the mind. And the associations formed will be learned more quickly and completely and be easier to remember.

  • I'm still waiting for smellevision. Imagine what it would do for shows about cooking, or travel! But the question was more about noticing, rather than remembering. Two guys walk in to a bar... How do they know it's a bar?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 10:11

This paper uses "perceptual learning": https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7294586/. This paper uses "perceptual expertise" https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/philosophy/article/abs/expert-knowledge-by-perception/42DB130E8E56292B5698684A2397ABB2. I have seen others using "enhanced perception". At least some Neural Network trainers seem to use "perceptual learning" as in this paper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201476/


Clearly there are multiple ways of framing this. The one I like most and seems most relevant here I think, is 'salience landscape'.

As I understand it this is a term that arose from work by Ramachandran and Oberman, now developed into a full theory about cognitive mechanism. See Consciousness and Relevance Realization.

Also, there is this process of moving from picturing to signifying in support of predictive processing, through abstractions that arise from social inference (Private Language Argument). See In defense of picturing; Sellars's philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience. This supports our understanding of how assembling salience landscapes supports 'cognitive grip', our understanding of experience in terms of facilitating our agency. Anil Seth talks about how our expectations shape our perceptions, and so how we see reality. Donald Hoffman gets into how we can't rely on arguments from biology that we will converge on how we interpret the world.

Plant names and taxonomy assemble experiences into salience landscapes, that enhance our cognitive grip on how to affect the world.

On language itself we have to recognise it is embedded with modes of life. I was talking to someone doing sign language interpretation for a film last night, who was saying it is not just a system of referent signs, but facial expressions and body language are crucial additional channels - just as in all language, even in written language non-explicit inferences and shared contextual cues are intrinsic. Our use of language is deeply related to our purposes in use of it:

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings." -Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations

Nearly one third of our brains are associated with visual processing. A great deal of work is being done by sub routines and cognitive architecture that we are not consciously aware of, that prepares our sensory input into objects and expectations. Salience landscapes and cognitive grip can help describe this also. The Global Workspace picture of conscious awareness and attention, points to the role of conscious awareness as the integration of multiple streams of data, into a relational picture to us that situates us to the world (see also lateralisation of brain function in sensory processing, one towards modelling body other towards modelling world).

Categorisation is not a 'basic' part of cognition. It relies on abstractions based on social use of language and inference from examples and language use, that relate to distinctively human faculties. See According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? for more details on the process, including what humans are doing that animals aren't.

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