By now it’s likely you’ve seen one of the new spots Verizon has rolled out touting the reach of their nationwide wireless network. In the ads people are set in front of an easel spattered with colored dots, each representing a unit of network coverage for a particular carrier and asked to identify what they see. The sketchy coverage of a competitor’s network, above, doesn’t provide enough information to give this person an idea of what he might be looking at, but when the dottier Verizon coverage is represented the same way, below, the familiar shape of the continental U.S. emerges.
Apparently vision isn’t enough to be able to navigate the world and act purposefully in it. Visual inputs have to be processed somehow before it becomes possible to distinguish a friendly face from a threatening one, or to recognize a family member. The brain’s ability to store visual images in memory and more or less instantly compare them with new inputs for similarities and dissimilarities is impressive.
Rather than deal with the many individual features each of these memories contain, we find it more efficient to stitch the bits together into patterns that we can more quickly retrieve and apply to recognition problems. The shape of the continental U.S. is one of these patterns.