New research has shown how addictive smart phone apps can be - the red badges of notifications and the blinking ellipsis on messenger apps tease our brains by signifying that a piece of information is about to drop. In a similar way, we are wired to associate traffic signs with information. We have linked their specific colours and easy shapes with more complex ideas such as an upcoming roundabout or a narrowing road. Knowing what they mean is a quick way to anticipate what is ahead.
Nature takes these shortcuts too. Rabbits alert each other with their white tails, a robin recognises another by the red of its feathers, and both will fly away from the short neck-shape of a predatory bird. ‘Evolution has taught animals the simplest signs,’ writes Tristan Gooley, ‘and therefore the fastest keys for each task.’ The same ‘fast-thinking’ allows humans to tell the difference between a threatening column of a storm cloud and a harmless cumulus. Modern life, however, has reduced our need for many other signs, argues Gooley. We have become a little rusty. The good news? It is possible to redevelop this ‘sixth sense’.
“His book works as a guide, linking hundreds of natural signs with information, such as how to find south from the shape of trees, or from the constellation of Orion at night”
He starts with the basics, devoting early chapters to what we can learn from wind direction. ‘Our task can be simplified by understanding the types of signs that are profitable and steering our attention towards them,’ he says. Gooley’s approach is a refreshing alternative to the encyclopaedic-style of many nature books. Instead, he focuses on broader patterns and rules, with enthusiasm. ‘Very little in our surroundings is random,’ he writes, ‘and with a little practice we can learn to sense things that we may find astonishing.’