Toward an ecological field theory of perceptual control of locomotion

Endre Kadar, R. Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The field concept was introduced into physics in the 19th century. Soon afterward, some Gestaltists tried to use this approach to characterize the internal global brain process. Conversely, another Gestaltist, Lewin (1938), tried to develop a field description of the physical and social environment in which the brain field was immersed. Later, J. J. Gibson (Gibson & Crooks, 1938/1982) attempted to conceptualize the environment-organism interaction in field theoretic terms. First, he suggested that a dynamical field of safe travel may be used by drivers to control their automobiles in traffic while avoiding collisions. Later, Gibson and his colleagues (Gibson, 1950; Gibson, Olum, & Rosenblatt, 1955) showed, mathematically, how an optic flow field that actors may use in selecting approach paths for landing aircraft safely is available. Over the ensuing decades, the optic flow field description has provided a powerful and popular tool for addressing a number of diverse problems in visual perception as it pertains to the control of action. Although in a seminal article, Gibson (1958) outlined a general theory of visually controlled locomotion, a recently published special issue on this topic (in Ecological Psychology; W. H. Warren, 1998) revealed that in even simple tasks (e.g., steering), intentional and informational constraints are still not yet understood. This article critically reviews the history of field theoretical approaches to the problem of perceptual control of goal-directed behavior. In particular, our overview focuses on the historical sources and development of Gibson's field theoretic attempts to address the visual control of locomotion. Our overview also provides an evaluation of recent field theoretical efforts to describe animal-environment interactions. We conclude that the use of interaction fields seems to be the most promising current approach. Because these fields incorporate both perceptual and action variables, they provide a natural way to formulate the perceiving-acting cycle as the reciprocal interplay of information and control along a goal-directed path. Finally, field theory, we suggest, provides an important tool because its power can be readily extended to include other useful techniques as well (e.g., quantum mechanical path space formalisms).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-180
Number of pages40
JournalEcological Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2000


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