Seeing (Shortcut) Patterns

Things are not what they seem

The other day I was walking through a forest and for a moment I stood still to feel the light breeze blowing around me. After a while of standing there I subconsciously started looking at some leaves that had fallen from the trees. They made a nice pattern, it seemed like they were organized somehow. I spent some time letting my mind wander and come up with explanations for how they might have fallen as they did, considering wind, common paths that small animals often make, and their original starting positions. For a moment it made some sense and I felt like I could discern the actual reason why they had fallen as they did. But then I realized that there was no real pattern and I was just coming up with this because it was something fun to do. Or to be more precise, there was a pattern of course, the laws of physics dictate how the leaves would move and fall, but the pattern I thought I was seeing was just an extremely superficial connection of data points that ignored the underlying reality of the phenomenon. This made me question how frequent is it for us to come up with patterns for things in our life, thinking that we’ve explained something, but in reality we’ve completely missed the point.

Humans (and I would imagine all other intelligent animals as well) are pattern recognizing machines. Not too blow our own proverbial horn, but we’re extremely good at it. However, to save time and energy our brain frequently jumps to conclusions, thinking it knows how something works, or can predict a certain outcome, without this being necessarily true. Moreover, these shortcuts are frequently estimated more on the negative side. If the shortcut pattern is wrong then the brain updates its beliefs, and a possibly negative outcome was averted. There is much to say about the mechanism of action here, as well as argument it from an evolutionary point of view, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

One could say that there are two sources for the patterns we hold in our mind: some we come up with by ourselves, explaining things that we see, while others we inherit from our culture and society and either we are too lazy to analyze them or they seem so obvious and common sense that we’re not inclined to do so. This latter ones are more prone to be incorrect than the former, if not only for the fact that we acquired them from our environment through a kind of osmosis, which is not a process that ensures that ideas are transmitted correctly (and even less that only correct ideas are transmitted). I would say that it is extremely rare for us to reevaluate patterns inherited from our culture, unless we directly spend time with whatever phenomenon these are supposed to explain, and realize by ourselves that our previously held beliefs are wrong.

This reminds me of a great issue of Dinosaur Comics where T-REX says that it’s impossible to revisit all the knowledge that you acquired while being young, so you can’t really know what things you think are true but really aren’t because they have been disproven. I looked for it but sadly I couldn’t find the actual issue I’m thinking about, if you do know which it is then please let me know so i can link to it here (meadowingc AT gmail DOT com)! I feel that the problem T-REX raised in the comic is pretty much on point with what we’re saying here: you mind if full of patterns/knowledge, much of which is not correct and there is no way for you to know which is which.

Anyway, the type of patterns we’re interested in here are those that superficially seem explain a phenomenon but that don’t really capture the totality of the phenomenon (without us realizing the fact). An example of this would be Lord Kelvin, who in 1897 said :

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

At the time, he was seeing some incredibly fast scientific advancements and concluded that humanity had already discovered all areas of physics, and there were no new lands to discover, and that the only thing that remained was the making of a more detailed map of what was already out there. Shortly after this statement however, the electron was discovered and a whole new branch of physics opened up: quantum mechanics. As an interesting note, this sort of thing is surprisingly common in the field of science (see here for more).

A more mundane example, which is surprisingly frequent, happens in social interactions. Whenever you say to yourself “oh, this person reacted in such and such a way, they must think such and such about me” then you’re using a shortcut pattern (unless, of course, the person in question has explicitly told you their feelings). Not only is the brain of the other person a fiendishly complex system, but you’re also taking into account many of your own preconceptions, biases, desires and beliefs (and plain old projection) as pseudo evidence during your calculation of what the other person actually thinks about you. Sometimes you can get a pretty good estimation, but even so you’ll never be able to actually know without them telling you.

To put it more formally, we can say that these shortcuts patterns are attempts of our brain to explain a phenomenon of which we can only see the effects, but have no (or partial) knowledge of the causes or its inner workings. A possibly more accurate term would be mental heuristics.

There can also be times when we come up with a pattern to explain something we think we’re seeing, but it’s not really there. This can happen in situations when we link unrelated phenomena and perceive them to be a single unified thing. Similarly, we could also be perceiving an extremely complex pattern for a phenomenon which is actually really simple (but we fail to see it as such). In these scenarios our thoughts are usually involved to form the glue that joins or augments these phenomena, and casts them in a shape that is congruent with the pattern we’re seeing.

These heuristics are sufficient to help us function in our day-to-day lives. But we must be careful to be mindful of them when they cause us suffering, or when we’re dealing with philosophical dialog. Always keep in mind that the way we think something is does not necessarily reflect its true nature.

See also

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