The earliest stages in our perception of the world have a subtle but powerful influence on later thought processes; they provide the contextual cues within which our thoughts are framed and they adapt to many different environments throughout our lives. Understanding the changes in these cues is crucial to understanding how our perceptual ability develops, but these changes are often difficult to quantify in sufficiently complex tasks where objective measures of development are available. Here we simulate perceptual learning using neural networks and demonstrate fundamental changes in these cues as a function of skill. These cues are cognitively grouped together to form perceptual templates that enable rapid 'whole scene' categorisation of complex stimuli. Such categories reduce the computational load on our capacity limited thought processes, they inform our higher cognitive processes and they suggest a framework of perceptual pre-processing that captures the central role of perception in expertise.