Perceptual development requires infants to adapt their perceptual systems to the structures and statistical information of their environment. In this way, perceptual development is not only important in its own right, but is a case study for behavioral and neural plasticity—powerful mechanisms that have the potential to support developmental change in numerous domains starting early in life. While it is widely assumed that perceptual development is a bottom-up process, where simple exposure to sensory input modifies perceptual representations starting early in the perceptual system, there are several critical phenomena in this literature that cannot be explained with an exclusively bottom-up model. This chapter proposes a complementary mechanism where nascent top-down information, feeding back from higher-level regions of the brain, helps to guide perceptual development. Supporting this theoretical proposal, recent behavioral and neuroimaging studies have established that young infants already have the capacity to engage in top-down modulation of their perceptual systems.

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Research on perceptual development reviewed in this chapter leads to several generalizations. These include:

The brain is inherently multimodal in both structure and function

There are superadditive effects in neural responsiveness to multimodal stimulation

There are strong intersensory connections and interactions; auditory information influences how visual information is perceived, and vice versa (this allows for various intersensory illusions)

The salience and facilitative effects of intersensory redundancy is seen across species, from avian to mammalian (including humans)

Perception of amodal stimulus properties is promoted by concurrent, bimodally specified presentation of the same information in two or more sensory modalities (relative to unimodal presentations of the same information)

Perception of modality-specific stimulus properties is promoted by unimodal presentations (relative to bimodal presentation of the same information)

Given the dramatic interconnections among the senses at all levels of analysis, from single-cell recordings to responses of neural populations, from attention to perceptual differentiation, learning, and memory, developmental psychologists can no longer ignore the importance of intersensory influences on basic processes of attention, perception, and cognition. Any account of development that aspires to be ecologically relevant and biologically plausible must be consistent with data from both the neural and the behavioral sciences regarding the basic role of multimodal stimulation in guiding and constraining individual development.

We have reached a point in the study of infancy where “what” questions are being replaced by “how” questions (Lewkowicz, 2000; Lickliter & Bahrick, 2000; Thelen & Smith, 1994). This shift in emphasis from descriptive to explanatory research requires convergence across levels of analysis, species, and methods. Given the explosion of data from the biological and behavioral sciences regarding the nature of intersensory functioning, increasing cooperation and coordination across disciplines will be needed to provide a unified theory of perceptual development. In this light, we conclude this chapter with several integrative themes that could contribute to the future study of perceptual development.

First, research on unimodal and multimodal perception needs to be better integrated. The current dichotomy between these approaches impedes progress toward a unified theory of perceptual development. Better integration could be achieved by incorporating unimodal and bimodal conditions into single studies where uniform methods allow for meaningful comparisons and avoid generalizing research findings beyond the context (unimodal vs multimodal) of investigation.

Second, research from the neural and behavioral sciences needs to be better integrated. Developmental psychology can no longer ignore findings from neural and physiological levels of analysis showing the interrelation of the senses at primary levels of processing and the implications of this insight for behavior. Specifically, our appreciation of the multimodal nature of the brain points out that higher order perceptual processing is not needed to achieve integration (binding) across the senses. Given that the integration issue has guided theory construction in the study of perceptual development for the better part of the 20th century, new frameworks are needed that move beyond these old ways of thinking and successfully incorporate findings from the biological sciences. Similarly, the neural sciences can benefit from cross-fertilization with the behavioral sciences. Data generated from the behavioral level regarding the nature of intersensory functioning can and should inform neural studies. For example, direct investigations for the basis of the observed behavioral effects described by the intersensory redundancy hypothesis (the role of redundancy and synchrony in guiding selective attention and facilitating perceptual learning) are needed at both the neural and the physiological levels of analysis.

Third, better integration of animal and human research is needed. The convergence of findings across different species will allow investigators to distill more fundamental developmental principles by highlighting invariant patterns of responsiveness that exist across species. Further, because we can experimentally manipulate the sensory experience of animals and thereby unpack the mechanisms of developmental change, the comparative approach can point to potentially fertile areas of investigation within the restrictions of human-based research (see Lickliter & Bahrick, 2000, for further discussion).

Fourth, the role of prenatal development in shaping and guiding young infants’ attention and perceptual processing can no longer be overlooked. Birth is not an adequate starting point for explanations of perceptual development (Lickliter, 2000). The infant has already had a great deal of prenatal sensory experience at the time of birth, and the nature and type of this prenatal experience must be taken into account when addressing the origins of intersensory functioning. As a case in point, newborns’ demonstrated sensitivity to amodal information (e.g., Slater et al., 1999) likely has its roots in the detection of amodal stimulation in the prenatal environment.

Fifth, the important role of selective attention could be better emphasized in developmental research concerned with perception and cognition. All information for perception and cognition must pass through the lens of selective attention. The natural environment provides an array of dimensions of stimulation, including unimodal–multimodal, moving–static, social–nonsocial, affectively laden–affectively neutral, and self–nonself. Which aspects or poles of these dimensions will be perceived, processed, and learned at different points in development is determined in large part by selective attention. Research is needed to define the salience hierarchies and rules that govern infants’ deployment of attention in the natural flux of sensory stimulation that typically varies along these important experiential dimensions. The intersensory redundancy hypothesis provides one testable example of such a hierarchy.

Sixth, further investigations of the interplay between the processing of modality-specific and amodal aspects of stimulation are needed. The world of natural events can be described as providing modality specific and amodal stimulus properties. When and under what conditions do infants attend to, perceive, or ignore each type of property and how does this affect learning and memory? The intersensory redundancy hypothesis described in this chapter provides one framework for guiding this type of research.

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The writing of this chapter was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grants MH26665 and MH26666.