A term applied by Heinz Werner to the tendency to view the world in the light of emotional and motor qualities—that is, to endow things and people with expressive characteristics.Werner believes the child’s experience of the world is more physiognomic than the adult’s. A child may, for example, perceive a lifeless object such as a stick as if it were an animate being, or he may say the number three looks “cross,” or that a diamond-shaped figure looks “cruel.” According to Werner this type of perception is more elementary than make-believe, and antedates the anthropomorphic tendency to project human characteristics into things. The child therefore does not actually project a cross face into the number three or a cruel person into the diamond-shaped figure. Rather, he invests them directly with these expressive characteristics.Werner holds that many artists retain this “gift” of physiognomic perception. Abstractionists like Kandinsky, for example, perceive certain emotions in the lines they draw; and apparently those who appreciate their paintings must also find them emotionally expressive. The tendency may apply to figure- drawing as a projective technique. The use of smooth, curved lines is believed to imply less tension than sharp, jagged lines, and blurred or shaded lines are believed to be indicative of anxiety. Similarly, if an individual is given paper and pencil and instructed to let the pencil “move by itself’ as he listens to music, the lines he draws will probably express the mood and feelings of the composition as he experiences it. Werner holds that many mentally ill individuals, particularly those affected with schizophrenic reactions, revert to a primitive, physiognomic perception of the world. Everything they see is construed in terms of their affective needs and reactions. A paranoid schizophrenic may therefore say, “The door is devouring me,” or insist that people are scowling at him when they are actually smiling. Such changes in perception are likely to occur at the onset of the illness; it is not unusual for patients to complain that the world suddenly appears strange to them.Similar changes in the appearance, or “physiognomy,” of things have been observed in cases of brain lesion as well as mescaline and marijuana intoxication. There is little doubt that LSD produces similar reactions. The following statement of Werner’s (1932) might apply to the experience of individuals under any of these influences: “In a very real sense it appears that the optical field submits to a process of dynamization, and things continually change in form, size, and position. The whole world becomes physiognomically alive.”

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "PHYSIOGNOMIC PERCEPTION," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed September 29, 2022).


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