Theory-laden observation

From the archives: The original post was posted on 7th February, 1995

An newspaper article1 I saw recently reminded me of past Taking Children Seriously discussions. It suggests that sense perceptions – physical sensations – depend, on a rather low level, on how one is thinking about them.

Some brief excerpts:

“In a report published two weeks ago, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis showed that the brain does not automatically record touch sensations. Rather, it pays special attention to places on the body where it is anticipating a stimulus. It is just another indication of how our brains are active, not passive, in their exploration of the world.”

“… in the brains of volunteers who are told to expect (but never actually receive) a feather-light touch on the big toe. Normal neurological activity in most of the brain devoted to monitoring the body becomes quiet. But that part dedicated to the toes maintains its usual state of alertness. In a sense, all eyes are on the expected toe-touch. This is no mere artefact. Companion tests demonstrate that people whose brains are in this state of preparedness are actually less sensitive to a touch on some unexpected part of the body, like the wrist.”

“… something similar in patients with brain damage causing unilateral neglect, a condition in which people are unaware of the left side of things. Such a patient may not notice a touch on the little finger when the right hand is held palm up but will feel the same touch when the palm is facing down. The crucial difference is that the little finger has switched sides from left to right. Obviously, a primary touch sensation is only the beginning. Anticipation, the position of the hand, attention and who knows what else all come into play before you are even aware of the original sensation.”


1. Jay Ingram, 1995, Toronto Star, 7th February, 1995, p. C8

Kevin Schoedel, 1995, ‘Theory-laden observation’,