4 - Pattern recognition: a basic human skill

One of the most basic skills of living beings is pattern-recognition. It is a fundamental part of our nature, one we humans share with animals, birds, and even insects and plants.

Pattern recognition is a precursor to survival behavior. All life needs to recognize the patterns that mean food, shelter, or threats to survival. A daisy will turn to track the path of the sun across the sky. Millions of years ago, the dog family took the decision to specialize in olefactory and aural pattern-recognition. They grew a long nose with many more smell receptors, and their brains developed to recognize and match those patterns.

As our ancestors swung through the trees, a key to survival was the ability to quickly recognize almost-ripe fruit as we moved rapidly past it. (Unripe fruit lacked nutrition and caused digestive problems; but if we waited for it to become fully ripe, some other ape got there first…)

So we specialized in visual pattern recognition, and grew a visual system to handle it (including a cerebral cortex optimized for this task).

Pattern-matching in humans makes extraordinary use of the visual cortex, one of the most highly-developed parts of the human brain. Recognition of many patterns appears to be programmed at DNA level, as evidenced by the newborn human’s ability to recognize a human face.

In primitive times, we had to learn which berries were safe to eat, and which were dangerous. We had to learn to recognize movement using our peripheral vision, then use our higher-acuity focus to match the pattern to our “survival database” to evaluate whether it was caused by another ape (opposite sex for breeding purposes; same-sex, possible territorial battle) or a lion (predator: threat).

For our survival, this pattern recognition had to become unceasing and automatic. In computer terms, pattern matching belongs to the “device driver” class of program. It is activated at birth (maybe even at conception), and remains running in background until we die, responding to interrupts and able to command the focus of the system when required.

Anyone who studies animal tracking and survival skills realizes at avery early stage that at the core of all these skills is pattern-recognition and matching.

Jon Young, a skilled animal tracking and naturalist who runs the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, WA, spent many years being mentored in tracking and wilderness skills by Tom Brown Jr., one of the best-known names in US tracking and wilderness skills circles.

Jon has studied the tracking and survival skills still used by native peoples all over the world, including Native Americans – who were (andin some cases, still are) masters of the art. He has documented how children begin to learn from birth the patterns essential to their survival.

For example, the Kalahari region of Africa is one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. There is almost no surface water for most of the year. Yet to the tiny Kalahari bushmen this is “home”, and provides all that they need to survive.

One of the first survival skills taught to the Bushmen’s children is how to recognize the above-ground “pattern” of a particular bush which has a water-laden tuber in its root system, invisible from the surface. If this is sliced, and the pulp squeezed, it provides a large quantity of pure drinking water.

All survival skills which involve animal tracking, or use of wild plants for food, medicines, clothing etc., are based on pattern recognition, and learning from birth the right database for the relevant ecosystem. Taking a Kalahari bushman and placing him in the Arctic would pose him a serious survival problem. An Eskimo transplanted to the Kalahari would have different but equally serious challenges.

There are patterns associated with wolf, domestic dog, wildcat, cougar, bear, squirrel, or mouse. Each has subtleties that enable the skilled tracker to recognize different events, such as an animal that is hunting, or running from a predator. There are even patterns within tracks which show when an animal turned its head to the side, perhaps to listen to a sound which means danger, or just to nibble a juicy shoot from a bush as it quietly grazed in the forest.

An expert in survival, such as a native or a well-trained woodsman, is one who has studied enough of the patterns of nature – the tracks of animals, the sounds of the birds, and so on – to have built a large “database” of patterns in his or her memory store.

“Nature provides everything we need to survive - and even thrive - in what we call the wilderness. All we have to do is learn to recognize it.”

Jon Young: 1998

It is also probably no coincidence that among first uses of symbols we have on record appear to be either records of (or how-to instructions on) hunting.

4.1 - Pattern recognition and reading

What has all this to do with the life of modern man, and especially with reading? Well, most of us may have left the woods to live in towns and cities, but the woods have never left us. We still use this same survival trait of pattern recognition unceasingly and unconsciously in our daily lives. It’s hard-wired into the organism.

Pattern recognition is how walk down a hallway without continually bumping into the walls. It’s how we stay on the sidewalk and out of the traffic on the roadway. It’s how we recognize each other. Pattern recognition still tells us where to find food – why else would McDonald’s be so protective of its corporate logo?

Modern civilization makes constant use of the fact that we continually pattern recognize and match. Corporate logos, freeway signs, “Walk/Don’t Walk” signals, and so on are all examples.

One of the most pervasive applications of our innate pattern recognition behavior is reading. We learn to read by first learning to recognize the basic patterns of letters. Then we learn to recognize the larger patterns of words. Once we have learned the pattern of the word “window”, we never again read the individual letters; the larger pattern is immediately matched as a gestalt. If we are skilled readers, we may learn to match patterns at phrase or sentence level, or perhaps in even larger units.

Reading is an amalgam of highly automated processes that include word recognition. Seen as a system the task of reading is simply serial pattern recognition. Patterns are recognized as symbols, groups of which are inferred to have meaning. Word recognition is the primary task of reading. In effect, the book takes our highly-tuned survival skill for a walk through a friendly neighborhood park, where almost all the people we meet are old friends whom we recognize immediately (depending on the level of challenge in the content). When we come across a new pattern, we are able to find its meaning (by consulting a dictionary or “pattern database”) and enter it into our memory of stored patterns as a new friend.

If reading, especially of longer texts like books, is analyzed in detail from this viewpoint, the “art” of typography and design can be shown to be a highly-sophisticated technology with a coherent underlying logic which is set up to make Serial Pattern Recognition as effortless as possible. The book is the embodiment of a technology of Optimized Serial Pattern Recognition.

In honor of its wilderness roots, I’ve called it OSPREY.

4.2 - The concept of harmonic gait

There is another feature of animal tracks that is highly relevant to readability: the concept of harmonic gait.

Every animal has its own specific harmonic gait; the pattern in a group of successive tracks which the animal makes when in its normal relaxed state. Tracks are regularly spaced. In animals with four long legs, for example the dog, cat and deer families, the right rear paw or hoof lands directly on top of the print left by the right front paw or hoof. Trackers call this direct register.

When the animal is moving faster than normal, rear feet land ahead of front feet, until gait speeds up into a canter or gallop, and the pattern changes. When the animal is moving slower than normal, the rear feet land behind the impressions left by the front feet. But even these new patterns are regular and predictable.

Trackers use these regular gaits to analyze animal behavior. Changes in gait are clues to what the animal was doing. Speeding up normally indicates either predatory behavior (e.g. chasing the next meal) or trying to escape from a perceived threat (e.g. when the deer spots movement in its peripheral vision, and matches it to the pattern of “mountain lion”).

These regular gaits have another important use. If a tracker wants to find out where an animal is now, or where it went, he obviously has to follow its tracks. This is easy enough in soft sand, where tracks are deep and easy to see. But when the animal moves over rougher or harder ground, tracks are much harder to spot.

If the tracker knows the animal’s gait, he can predict with reasonable certainty exactly where the next track is likely to be found. He can narrow his search for the next print to the most likely area, find it quickly even if its traces are faint, and confirm the animal’s direction of movement. By using gait measurements (with a “tracking stick” easily made from a fallen branch), trackers can continue to follow the animal in conditions that would otherwise make tracking extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The regular rhythm of the gait acts as a cue to the tracker, telling him exactly where the next pattern-recognition task will take place. The relevance of this will become apparent when we look at typography later in this paper. Books do exactly the same by controlling the pace at which the words are presented and allowing the reader to move through the content at his or her own harmonic or natural gait (which readers change all the time in the course of reading).

The book presents each reader with level ground over which he or she can move at their own pace.

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