You are not currently logged in.

Access your personal account or get JSTOR access through your library or other institution:


Log in to your personal account or through your institution.

The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes

Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye and Shinsuke Shimojo
The American Naturalist
Vol. 167, No. 5 (May 2006), pp. E117-E139
DOI: 10.1086/502806
Stable URL:
Page Count: 23
  • Download PDF
  • Add to My Lists
  • Cite this Item
We're having trouble loading this content. Download PDF instead.


Abstract: Are there empirical regularities in the shapes of letters and other human visual signs, and if so, what are the selection pressures underlying these regularities? To examine this, we determined a wide variety of topologically distinct contour configurations and examined the relative frequency of these configuration types across writing systems, Chinese writing, and nonlinguistic symbols. Our first result is that these three classes of human visual sign possess a similar signature in their configuration distribution, suggesting that there are underlying principles governing the shapes of human visual signs. Second, we provide evidence that the shapes of visual signs are selected to be easily seen at the expense of the motor system. Finally, we provide evidence to support an ecological hypothesis that visual signs have been culturally selected to match the kinds of conglomeration of contours found in natural scenes because that is what we have evolved to be good at visually processing.

Notes and References

This item contains 36 references.

Literature Cited
  • ['Adelson, E. H., and P. Anandan. 1990. Ordinal characteristics of transparency. Paper presented at the AAAI‐90 Workshop on Qualitative Vision, July 29, 1990, Boston, MA.']
  • ['Ager, S. 1998. Omniglot: a guide to writing systems.']
  • ['Anderson, B. L. 1997. A theory of illusory lightness and transparency in monocular and binocular images: the role of contour junctions. Perception 26:419–453.']
  • ['Arnoult, M. D. 1960. Prediction of perceptual responses from structural characteristics of the stimulus. Perceptual and Motor Skills 11:261–268.']
  • ['Attneave, F. 1957. Physical determinants of the judged complexity of shapes. Journal of Experimental Psychology 53:221–227.']
  • ['Barrow, H. G., and J. M. Tenenbaum. 1981. Interpreting line drawings as three‐dimensional surfaces. Artificial Intelligence 17:75–116.']
  • ['Biederman, I. 1987. Recognition‐by‐components: a theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review 94:115–147.']
  • ['Biederman, I., and E. E. Cooper. 1991. Priming contour‐deleted images: evidence for intermediate representations in visual object recognition. Cognitive Psychology 23:393–419.']
  • ['Biederman, I., and P. C. Gerhardstein. 1993. Recognizing depth‐rotated objects: evidence and conditions for three‐dimensional viewpoint invariance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 19:1162–1182.']
  • ['Binford, T. O. 1981. Inferring surfaces from images. Artificial Intelligence 17:205–244.']
  • ['Capitman, B. B. 1976. American trademark designs. Dover, New York.']
  • ['Chakravarty, I. 1979. A generalized line and junction labeling scheme with applications to scene analysis. IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence 1:202–205.']
  • ['Changizi, M., and S. Shimojo. 2005. Character complexity and redundancy in writing systems over human history. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 272:267–275.']
  • ['Clowes, M. B. 1971. On seeing things. Artificial Intelligence 2:79–116.']
  • ['Coulmas, F. 1991. The writing systems of the world. Blackwell, Oxford.']
  • ['Cutting, J. E., and M. Massironi. 1998. Pictures and their special status in perceptual and cognitive inquiry. Pages 137–168 in J. Hochberg, ed. Perception and cognition at century’s end: history, philosophy, and theory. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.']
  • ['Daniels, P. T., and B. Bright. 1996. The world’s writing systems. Oxford University Press, New York.']
  • ['Dreyfuss, H. 1972. Symbol sourcebook. Wiley, New York.']
  • ['Endler, J. A. 1992. Signals, signal conditions, and the direction of evolution. American Naturalist 139(suppl.):S125–S153.']
  • ['Fairbank, A. 1968. A book of scripts. Penguin, Baltimore.']
  • ['Guilford, T., and M. S. Dawkins. 1993. Receiver psychology and the design of animal signals. Trends in Neuroscience 16:430–437.']
  • ['Guzman, A. 1969. Decomposition of a visual scene into three‐dimensional bodies. Pages 243–276 in A. Grasselli, ed. Automatic interpretation and classification of images. Academic Press, New York.']
  • ["Helfman, E. S. 2000. Signs and symbols around the world. Authors' Guild, Lincoln, NE."]
  • ['Hochberg, J., and E. McAlister. 1953. A quantitative approach to figural “goodness.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 46:361–364.']
  • ['Huffman, D. A. 1971. Impossible objects as nonsense sentences. Pages 295–323 in B. Meltzer and D. Michie, eds. Machine intelligence. Vol. 6. Elsevier, New York.']
  • ['Ifrah, G. 1985. From one to zero: a universal history of numbers. Viking, New York.']
  • ['Kanade, T. 1980. A theory of origami world. Artificial Intelligence 13:279–311.']
  • ['Kellman, P. J., S. E. Guttman, and T. D. Wickens. 2001. Geometric and neural models of object perception. Pages 183–245 in T. F. Shipley and P. J. Kellman, eds. From fragments to objects: segmentation and grouping in vision. Elsevier, Oxford.']
  • ['Kellogg, R. 1969. Analyzing children’s art. Mayfield, Palo Alto, CA.']
  • ['Manser, M. H., Z. Yuan, W. Liangbi, R. Yongchang, W. Jingrong, M. Ping, R. Xiaoping, and S. Qinan. 2003. Pocket Oxford Chinese dictionary. Oxford University Press, Oxford.']
  • ['Nakanishi, A. 1980. Writing systems of the world. Tuttle, Rutland, VT.']
  • ['Robinson, A. 1995. The story of writing. Thames & Hudson, London.']
  • ['Ryan, M. J. 1998. Sexual selection, receiver biases, and the evolution of sex differences. Science 281:1999–2003.']
  • ['Sampson, G. 1985. Writing systems. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.']
  • ['Turner, K. J. 1974. Computer perception of curved objects using a television camera. PhD thesis. University of Edinburgh.']
  • ['Waltz, D. 1975. Understanding line drawings of scenes with shadows. Pages 19–91 in P. H. Winston, ed. The psychology of computer vision. McGraw‐Hill, New York.']