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Gestalt Laws of Perception as applied to Camouflage

Brad Paisley may have said it best when he said “ain’t nothin’ [that] doesn’t go with camouflage.”

We’ve all been walking down the street, on our way to some more important task or place, when we’ve noticed the guy wearing what appears to be an entire forest printed on the pattern of his shirt, usually accompanied by a beaten up pair of leather boots and a can of chew, walking the other direction. It’s likely that any of us (and likely most of us) experienced an introspective moment of mature and adult consideration, thinking “ha! I can still see you!”

What we failed to consider in that moment of introspection and solemn consideration of the brain’s ability to perceive is specifically where the odd amalgamation of tree branches, leaves, and pine cones in resplendent 2-D would in fact be useful in hiding from Gestalt grouping laws. As humans, it’s important to remember: if we don’t have customization, what do we have?

In all seriousness, consider this image:

US Army Selects Scorpion Camouflage Pattern (aka: MultiCam variant)

The above images are examples of a less effective (left) and more effective (right), universally applicable patterns that are designed to help make the wearer more difficult to spot in any natural environment. Specifically, the pattern on the left is the recently replaced Universal Camouflage Pattern, formerly the pattern used by the US Army. The pattern on the right, as some may know, is its replacement, known as Scorpion W2, or more officially, Operational Camouflage Pattern.

Consider the above patterns from the vantage point of a Gestalt psychologist; a camouflage pattern is designed to exploit multiple Gestalt Grouping Laws, which we will consider. These laws will be discussed in the order listed in the Course Content for Lesson 3.

Proximity: The human mind tries to group similar items by proximity, so the camouflage pattern is designed to never look like what it is- a pattern- to the casual eye, thus deflecting the brain’s natural ability to see it as a grouping of similar blobs or squares printed on a jacket or pants.

Good Continuation: Possibly the most functional part of camouflage, the pattern serves to break up the outline of the human form, which is usually starkly recognizable amidst any surroundings. The pattern is designed to break up the human form, blocking the casual viewers ability to see the wearer by looking for a human shape.

Connectedness: Similarly to the previous paragraph, a good camouflage pattern will inhibit the minds ability to see that the blobs of color are all connected to the same outfit, and therefore to each other.

Common Fate: Probably the best example of a camouflage pattern’s limitations, movement cannot be easily concealed by a printed pattern on fabric. However, in the right environment, more effective forms of camouflage, like ghillie suits, can help inhibit the minds ability to process the moving bush as a person for just a bit longer than it normally would take, giving the wearer a critical, split second advantage.

Pragnanz: The purposes of camouflage being what they are, the successful pattern attempts to prevent the observer from being able to immediately interpret the wearer as a human-shaped pattern. While it’s not the same as invisibility, the idea is to keep the brain processing longer, giving the wearer the ability to strike first. The pattern is designed specifically to avoid any shapes that could be associated quickly, or as uniform in any way.

Overall, Brad Paisley, if he were being literal, would be only marginally correct. Camouflage doesn’t truly hide the wearer or make them invisible. Our thoughts while walking down the street and passing someone replete in Mossy Oak brand clothing (“Ha! I can still see you!”) are off as well, if only considering the environ around us. It’s not an invisibility cloak; it’s anti-Gestalt engineering.