Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Recognition of a Pattern That Doesn't Really Exist

One of the aspects that's covered in the book I'm reading right now, The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, is something he calls patternicity.

Patternicity, basically, is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. As Mr. Shermer puts it, "our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction." (text taken from this article at Scientific American, but he says something similar in the book itself.)

So, to use the example he uses in the book, our ancestors had a choice when they heard the grass rustling behind them. They could believe that it was a predator and that they should get the heck out of dodge or they could believe that it was just the wind and stay there. Both have a chance of being correct, but the cost of choosing option B (the wind) and being wrong was much higher than the cost of choosing option A (predator) and being wrong. If they chose A and were wrong, they suffered some fright and some inconvenience. If they chose B and were wrong, they got eaten (most likely).

We are the descendants of the people who chose A, and this is a choice that is made in a split second based on what data our brains already have, such as previous encounters with predators in such a fashion, reports of predators in the area, etc. Our brains are wired via natural selection in this manner to see causal patterns where they may or may not actually exist because there's no way for the brain to filter out which causal patterns are useful and which are not.

And it doesn't take much for a pattern-rule to be established, I know for a fact. Reading this section reminded me of three times in my life where option A has been taken and it has been in error.


I have only been to one air show in my life. For those of you who may not know exactly what an air show is, it's an event where aviators display their skills for an audience. So planes flying in formations, doing special tricks (upside down, colored smoke releases, etc.), people doing wing walking, things like that. They also, as I recall, will have planes on the ground for people to look at and other exhibits. There's food and drink and it's all set up in a large field with maybe bleachers but usually not. And you pay to get in and you're supposed to have a good time.

My family loves them and tries to go every year.

Except for me. Like I said, I've only ever been to one. The thing is, at that one air show I was...probably ten or eleven years old and it was fun at first, but then I started to feel hot and achey. Sick all over and my stomach was cramping and I was nauseous and crying but my parents didn't want to leave yet so they stuck me in a tent in the shade, figuring I'd feel better and that I was just over heated and tired.

Well I wasn't and I spent hours being miserable and certain that I was going to die because I felt so bad. Eventually the show ended and we all went home. When we got home we discovered that I'd started my period for the first time, which explained many of my symptoms and why just sitting in the shade didn't make me feel any better.

So it's not the fault of the air show, but every time I think about it I remember being so sick and miserable. The two events have become linked in my mind even though there's no actual causality between them.


My mother used to make these cheese stuffed pasta shells. They were, as I recall, delicious and I couldn't get enough of them.

Something like this. *blargh* Even looking at them makes me make a 'gross' face.
I haven't had them in more than 20 years. Because, of course, when I think about them I remember the last time I ate them. We had them for dinner one night and I woke up that night/the next morning and was terribly ill. It was the flu and it had nothing to do with the food but now when I smell the stuffed shells I physically feel sick to my stomach. I *know* that there's no relation between the shells and being ill but my mind has created one and my body responds to that.


And this one's not mine!

My sister *hates* Dr. Pepper. Hates it with a passion and she doesn't remember ever drinking it so she doesn't know why.

I, however, know exactly why she doesn't like it.

I was on a swim team in elementary school and it was at one of our meets. She was maybe five years old as I recall and was running around, drinking Dr. Pepper and generally being a little kid. She was overexcited and overheated and the inevitable mess happened. Ever since, without even knowing it, she's been making the connection between the flavor/smell of Dr. Pepper and being terribly sick.

I just find the entire thing interesting. It's a reaction that's meant to help us survive but it doesn't have a way to filter out the false-positives from the rest of the data.


  1. Your brain is essentially built on association. Its stored long term memory that causes reactions like hating X because you had the stomach flu last time you ate it. This is especially true if it happened as a child.

    We are pre-dispositioned to "believe" the safer alternative. Our brains, often because we don't have the knowledge, have a hard time connecting facts with things like God. However, belief in God, even if it doesn't exist, is "safer" than not. Its a survival mechanism. If God doesn't exist oh well. But if He does and we don't believe our afterlife survival is heavily threatened.

    1. However, belief in God, even if it doesn't exist, is "safer" than not. Its a survival mechanism. If God doesn't exist oh well. But if He does and we don't believe our afterlife survival is heavily threatened.

      Pascal's Wager, of course. But it's such an overly simplified argument, when you think about it. After all, it only improves your changes of survival if you manage to choose the right god to worship and manage to do so perfectly enough to earn/be granted the right.

  2. Great post! I loved the examples as I can relate.

    1. I think most people can relate to my examples. If not from their own lives then from the lives of the people that they know.


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