Here's something that struck me, years back, while my daughter was first learning to read. My daughter hadn't yet seen a live kangaroo, but having seen the K-is-for-kangaroo illustration in Dr. Seuss's ABC, and the K-is-for-kangaroo illustration in Curious George's ABCs, she could look at a third cartoon of a kangaroo and recognize it instantly. What's fascinating is that the Dr. Seuss kangaroo illustration looks nothing like the Curious George kangaroo illustration – neither are realistically drawn, and a Martian seeing those two illustrations, it seemed to me, wouldn't suspect they portrayed animals of the same species.
This observation pushed me towards a conclusion that was later clarified for me by Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought – my favorite book about religion by an atheist.* Namely, that we have certain innate animal-recognition capacities, that we're born with what Boyer calls a “template” permitting us to assign descriptive facts about an animal to a working model of that animal.
Equally remarkable to me now is something that didn't strike me at the time -- the fact that the letter “K” itself also looks different from one book to another. As astonishing as our ability to recognize kangaroos from stylized depictions of kangaroos is our ability to recognize the same letter in different fonts and handwritings. This is known as the invariance problem -- as stated by Stanislaw Dehaene in Reading in the Brain, “we need to recognize which aspect of a word does not vary – the sequence of letters – in spite of the thousand and one possible shapes that the actual characters can take.”
Dehaene concludes -- “Obviously, our capacity to recognize words does not depend on an analysis of their overall shape.” Rather than a shape, we memorize a description of a shape -- just as when learning to recognize animals. There may even be some overlap between the neurological toolkit we evolved for animal recognition and the neurological toolkit we now use for written character recognition?
* After I watched Bill Mayer's documentary “Religulous” with a friend of mine, she remarked, “The problem with atheists is they take religion too seriously.” An observation worthy of G. K. Chesterton.