Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Fast Recognition of Wild Shapes

I took my younger son exploring a couple of days ago. We were looking for wildflowers and using natural navigation to roam across a wild patch of West Sussex.

We used the sun lots, but lost it for a period behind shower clouds and then relied on the clues in trees. I’m always delighted when this happens; natural navigation grows more challenging and a lot more fun when you lose the sun for periods.

Near the end of our journey my son, who was in front, stopped suddenly. He pointed to the ground you see in the picture above. I halted suddenly too and instinctively reached out towards him, to stop him getting any closer.

Our brain has evolved to quickly identify some shapes, including this one, as potentially dangerous. It takes ‘slow’ thinking to recognise that it is just a stick. We had a laugh and then I took this photo.

My book Wild Signs and Star Paths (Published in the US as The Nature Instinct) explores this area in greater depth. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter:

“We are alive because our brain has evolved to make sense of the complexity by finding signals in the noise. Each species has done the same. The trees need not concern themselves with the sounds a large mammal makes, but we must. We will instantly react to a surprising bark or roar, or even the loud crack of a branch underfoot, turning to face it. Even if we don’t want to, our limbic system will focus our attention; it is out of our control.

Certain things are hard-wired, like a healthy wariness of snakes. We recognize snakes more quickly than we do other animals, and researchers proved that when the level of camouflage is steadily raised to the point where we lose sight of most animal shapes, we can still make out the snake’s.

This is part of our innate pattern recognition system, one that may vary from species to species but that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Leopards prey on macaques, but these monkeys are finely tuned to leopards’ patterns and can tell when their spots are “wrong.” Researchers using models of leopards to test macaque behaviour discovered that the macaques gave fewer calls, their sign of recognising a leopard, if the spots were not in a true-to-life pattern.”

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