The Perceptual Cycle and its Relevance to the Audio-Visual Content

Knowledge stored within the mind/brain guides our visual exploration of the world and in-turn, such exploration builds an understanding of the world. Depending on our knowledge (or more simply, our memories) our relative understanding and perceptions are constructed very differently. This article explores the application of Ulrich Neisser’s perceptual cycle to audio-visual advertising. We unpack the concept and show how relevant the construct is to delivering impactful narrative to consumers. We highlight how short-duration audio-visual content can be structured more effectively using the perceptual cycle.

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The perceptual cycle is an important construct in cognitive science. It encapsulates the interaction between mind, environment, and bodily movement.

The Expert Eye

Ever wonder why some people can look at an event, object or a person and are able to see things that others can’t: an art expert notices the intricate brushwork and textures on a canvas and is able to detect a fabrication versus an authentic masterpiece; an expert in human behaviour is able to detect dishonesty by observing a person’s behavioural responses; a scientists can look at a tissue sample under a microscope and is able to perceive microfine details that others simply can’t. All of these experiences are enabled by knowledge stored in the mind/brain and its effect on perception and eye-movement.

When the scientist looks through his/her microscope or eye-balls a dataset, his/her stored knowledge will affect where and what he/she looks at, will suppress less relevant information in the visual fields through the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms, and enhance information that is task-relevant (related to the goal determined within his/her mind). The influence of knowledge (memory) on human eye-movement, and in turn specific information obtained from new eye-positions, will be assimilated into memory structures (schemata), which in-turn will further guide and drive the eye-movements to gain more specific information about the environment. Much of this happens rapidly and automatically, outside conscious control and awareness (Althoff and Cohen, 1999; Gaspelin and Luck, 2018; Vogt and Magnussen, 2007).

In the instance of an untrained eye, the scene through the lens of the microscope will appear less meaningful—a homogenous blur peppered with dark spots. As a result of undeveloped knowledge, the eye-movements follow a very different pattern and information is not meaningfully filtered. However, given adequate training and experience, schematic knowledge (semantic/conceptual memories) will develop, and the untrained eye, visual-cortex and associated brain regions will begin to meaningfully filter irrelevant information and guide the eyes in a co-ordinated search for task-relevant information. In this way, our perceptual processes are guided and controlled by an interaction of incoming sensory information and stored knowledge, which in turn influences the muscles that control eye-movement.

Scientists refer to this phenomenon known as the perceptual-cycle: incoming information delivered by the senses influences our memories structures and in turn our memories influences further exploration through unconscious control over our eye movements, this all occurring in a repetitive cycle. The perceptual cycle has long been an important concept in the cognitive and neural sciences – the perceptual cycle was presented in Professor Ulrich Neisser’s 1976 book, Cognition and reality: Principles and implications of cognitive psychology (Neisser, 1976; see Lappi (2016) for a recent review that integrates emerging findings).

Perceptual Cycle

A schematic of the perceptual cycle adapted from Neisser 1976. According to Neisser, the cycle moves through three distinct phase of sampling the environment, modifying the internal representation, and in-turn directing movement.

Memories, perceptual cycles and everyday life

Just as these scientific principles of mind are applicable to understanding the domains of expert knowledge, they also signify a generic process related to the interaction of memory and eye-movements in the exploration of the environments we inhabit. For example, let’s consider the first time we encounter an interesting movie. We may watch it once and we will inevitably develop a basic knowledge structure (a memory), which may contain the plot and perhaps the names of the leading characters, but perhaps not names of supporting roles or an appreciation of subtle sub-text. If one is compelled to watch the movie again, one’s schematic knowledge from the previous experience will guide one to assimilate more knowledge about the movie: one notices short scenes that “weren’t there before”, one perceives subtle sub-text that wasn’t previously apparent, and one remembers the names of less prominent characters. On subsequent viewings, the existing memory of the movie guides perceptual exploration: memory influences our visual explorations (eye-movements), some information is even suppressed and some is enhanced, as a result we start to attend to previously unnoticed features. This all happens in a way that we are not consciously aware of or have conscious control over.


Consumers, television advertisements and perpetual cycles

As is true with movies, so is with television advertisements. For example, just like a movie, consumers do not encode all the details of an ad in one viewing, in many instance they won’t even successfully encode the branding or product information, even after 4-5 viewings! However, they may well remember the narrative and one or two qwerky features put there by the creatives. Given that advertisements may only be viewed a few times, generally amidst many other ads competing for attention, and that we don’t chose to view specific ads like we do with movies, the encoding and assimilation of advertising information into memory is less effective compared to if one was engaging intentionally with audio-visual materials, like choosing to watch a movie that you have been dying to see.

In understanding the reception of television advertising by consumers and how to develop visually memorable content, one needs to consider the structure of the television advertisement and the nature of the perceptual cycle. Generally advertisements have a narrative and then have an all-important iconic moment: an event/scene that delivers or emphasises the key message that consumers should ultimately remember, this often occurs in close proximity to the branding, but not always. In effective TV advertisements, these moments will garner increased engagement with strong positive emotion, making them highly memorable. For the most part, the rest of the advertisement is a murky perceptual haze in the minds of the consumer, and in retrospect will perhaps, if you’re lucky, be remembered with a few moments of clarity here and there, however, these impressions quickly fades with time if the content was not personally relevant to the consumer.

Consider a contrasting situation in terms of engaging with advertising materials: continual engagement, as in the advertising/marketing industry, enhances assimilatory processes far beyond the bounds of what an average consumer will experience. Such rich knowledge structures yield vastly different perceptions in comparison to an everyday consumer—an information rich schema develops within the mind of the person whose job it is to produce the advertisement, enabling finer perception of the subtle elements of the material that are ultimately not relevant to the average consumer’s perceptions. Thus, a large perceptual gap can exist in understanding between what a creative or client feels is relevant and what is relevant to the mind of the average consumer.

The role of the perceptual cycle in advertising testing

The perceptual cycle allows us to understand the cognitive and visual-motor components involved in audio-visual content consumption. It also lets us gain valuable scientific insight into how and why a marketer’s/advertiser’s perception(s) of the content differs from the consumer population. The perceptual cycle framework suggests three important points to be kept in mind when content is to be optimised in the direction of perceptual relevance of the consumer.

(1) We may have to reluctantly accept that “marketing instincts” are not a reliable predictor for consumer responses within a population of consumers. This fact is proven time and time again throughout the history of marketing and advertising, when it has been shown that the market’s response often diverges from the brand management team’s expectations.

(2) The perceptual cycle suggests that post-production decision-making should already be heavily consumer-centric—it even suggests that misplaced/over involvement by the brand team could be counter-productive to market-place success.

(3) The perceptual cycle further suggests that it is incredibly important to use the right tools to gauge which time periods engage consumers and build-up to positive engaging iconic moments, and what periods are disruptive to this build-up.

Many ad testing paradigms only look at the advertisement as a single unit, but it’s more important to observe what happens moment-to-moment, as schemata and the visual-motor system interact. This is in order to find points in the narrative that consumers do not resonate with, as these can impact the overall effectiveness of the communication (see Vecchiato, Cherubino, Trettel and Bablioni, 2013, for detailed methodologies).

Temporally patterned insights may never be known to the brand team if time-based approaches are not used. If they are revealed it will only be in the most general sense—when tracking-studies suggest neutral or even negative sentiment to the marketing materials as a whole. In such cases, minor, imprecise changes are made that can even further detract from building up to the content’s iconic moment.

The perceptual cycle opens the door to better management practices in marketing/advertising, where content development management is consumer-centric, less opinionated, and more scientifically grounded.


Althoff, R. R., & Cohen, N. J. (1999). Eye-movement-based memory effect: a reprocessing effect in face perception. Journal of experimental psychology: learning, memory and cognition, 25, 997-1010.

Gaspelin, N. & Luck, S. J. (2018). The role of inhibition in avoiding distraction by salient stimuli. Trends in cognitive science, 22, 79-92.

Lappi, O. (2016). Eye movements in the wild: oculomotor control, gaze, behaviour and frames of reference. Neuroscience and biobehavioural reviews, 69, 49-68.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognition and reality: principles and implications for cognitive psychology. W.H.Freeman & Co: San Fransico.

Vecchiato, G., Cherubino, P., Trettel. A., & Bablioni, F. (2013). Neuroelectrical brain imaging tools for the study of the efficacy of TV advertising stimuli and their application to neuromarketing. Springer-Verlag: Berlin.

Vogt, S., & Magnussen, S. (2007). Expertise in pictorial perception: Eye-movement patterns and visual memory in artists and laymen. Perception, 36, 91-100.

Watson, D. G. & Humphreys, G. W. (2000). Visual marking: evidence for inhibition using a probe-dot detection paradigm. Perception and psychophysics, 62, 471-481.

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Published under: Consumer Neuroscience


Dr Matthew Gerhold is a cognitive-neuroscientist with a specialisation in behavioural neurosciences and non-invasive electrophysiological measurements. He has a wealth of experience extending over 14 years in different fields of the neurosciences: behavioural, cognitive, clinical and consumer. Gerhold is a doctoral graduate in the Health Sciences, conducting his research through the Division of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town