Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur


This particular rant has been coming for a while. It's a "rant" mainly in that it contains some pretty broad assertions and very little supporting evidence. Consider it the basis of a research project.

Thesis: all human thought is patterns. Period.

We tend to get distracted, because those patterns are so complex and varied. When we hear the word "pattern", we tend to focus on just physical patterns, or patterns of behaviour, or other particular types. I'm using the word more broadly here. Roughly speaking, a "pattern" is any collection of concepts that get related in the human mind. This patterning is not rational, nor consistent. But that's basically what's going on.

It's hard to explain the notion of pattern here -- I've spent ten years thinking about this, and have internalized the concept rather deeply. The brain contains both low-level patterns, groupings of a particular kind of thing, and higher-level ones associating a variety of lower-level ones. The pattern of "cat" is an agglomeration of a raft of sights, sounds, smells -- even a stuffy head for some people. Nor are the various patterns separated: they are all fuzzily overlapped in ways we often don't even realize ourselves.

Learning is the process of pattern adjustment. The core of serious learning can be found in cognitive dissonance. I've always found it odd that so few people pay attention to this partiular phenomenon. We sometimes talk about learning being "painful", but we dismiss that as a metaphor for some reason. But while the sensation may not be physical pain, it's pretty akin: being confronted by data that don't fit our established patterns induces an aversion response pretty similar to that from pain. If we get around that pain and incorporate the new data into our patterns, that's learning.

The inverse of learning is -- well, not boredom quite as much as not noticing. When we are confronted with data that fit our patterns completely, we tend to gloss them over. This is the phenomenon of not remembering what you had for breakfast, and I suspect is part of why our time seems to pass more quickly as the years pass by -- less is truly new, so we aren't learning anything from it.

This rant was set off by a note from metahacker about faith vs. reason. I don't think you can really understand either without placing them in the context of pattern-based thinking.

It's common in our circles to extol the virtues of rational thinking. But humans do not natively think rationally. We can make ourselves think in a manner that is approximately rational, but that's a learned pattern itself -- we teach ourselves the patterns of rational thought, and try to restrict ourselves to those patterns.

We wonder why faith is such a powerful force in human life? It's because faith is much closer to how we really think. Patterns are fuzzy associations, inconsistent and imprecise. Faith is built of such things -- ill-defined associations that we build up into a picture that makes a certain overall sense if you overlook details that don't fit the pattern.

Science, by contrast, interacts poorly with pattern-based reasoning, because it is too precise and persnickety. The basis of science is that you have to care about the inconvenient details. A single reproducible experiment may invalidate patterns of thought supported by a thousand other experiences. That's why so few people really like science -- it violates our patterns, demanding great mental flexibility of us.

We tend to overestimate our own rationality. Even the most "rational" of us gets by mostly on pattern-based reasoning. Science itself owes more to patterns than we care to admit -- even when the experiments themselves are entirely logical, the interpretive frameworks we hang them on are pattern-based. And we get attached to those frameworks, beyond anything rational. This is why science gets trapped into obsolete paradigms -- our patterns steer us in one direction, even after those inconvenient facts start to steer us in another. And there's nothing wrong with that: like it or not, it is how our brains work.

Of course, these patterns aren't entirely learned. The human brain is a finely evolved instrument, and much of that evolution has steered us towards being establish specific types of patterns. Some patterns exist at a fairly low level, such as the ability to take the primitive image elements coming from the eyes and cohere them into images, or to take vibratory patterns and perceive them as specific musical tunes. Some are higher level than that -- for example, there is fair evidence that there are some hardcoded patterns underlying human language, even if the languages themselves are learned. There may even be higher level evolved patterns: many forms of social interaction, for example, seem to have an evolutionary basis, which indicates that the patterns may be physically ingrained.

Emotions clearly have a pattern-based element. The emotions themselves may be evolved in, but many of the specific triggers are learned, and pattern-related. These patterns can be quite subtle -- consider the way that a smell or sound can cause entirely preconscious emotional responses. Of course, it doesn't surprise us to find that emotions are irrational, but even there we don't often consider the complex ways in which they interact with each other and with our other thoughts.

Okay, enough braindump for now. I'm sure I'll return to this theme from time to time. But I needed to get this said, because it underlies a lot of how I think. Over time, I've found that I see patterns where others see other principles. And yes, it's possible that I overemphasize the notion. But I honestly don't think so -- I've found that looking for patterns teaches me a lot about how we actually think and behave...

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