Recognizing Patterns.

Losing the ability to recognise patterns. 

When humans first evolved into their present form, they found themselves in a world where their ability to recognize patterns was essential to their survival. Early man's ability to recognize predators, food and facial expressions was essential to their survival and well being. Often these important cues and clues were just patterns in the dark or carefully camoflaged against their backgrounds. Recognition of patterns is just a refinment or extention of recognition itself, it was one that increased the posibility of living well and staving off death. By comparison with this savage world of the past, the modern world, and especially the western world of the child, holds no need of pattern recognition other than in the recognition of faces and their expressions. Because of this lack of need children gradually learn that though pattern recognition can be amusing it is not high on their list of important qualities or abilities they wish to develop. Thus they do not bother to pay close attention to patterns they are not directed toward and tend to supress them when they come to mind. Even facial expression is less used by adults than preverbal children because it becomes less essential for communication. It follows then, that because children no longer need this pattern recognition to survive, most of them tend to gradually lose this incredable ability. Truth be told though of all these tools of genius this one may be the one most humans retain, atleast to some extent.

Genius and Pattern Recognition.

Great discoveries have usually come about by means of pattern recognition. It is no surprise then to discover that the great creative geniuses of the world were all good at recognizing patterns. Patterns are all around us hidden in objects, actions and processes. Being able to find these patterns, see how they continue, see the flaws in them is an essential prerequisite for creation. People of genius find these patterns everywhere. The finding of these patterns by geniuses is an exercise for the mind, a training of a facility that will recognize some pattern that no one else will be able to see.

Recognition and Gestalt Psychology.

The gestalt psychologists were very interested in how the mind goes about recognizing things. They discovered that an image could be created in such a way as the mind could interpret it in more than one way. At he top of the page are two small images which are classical gestalt images that can be seen in two ways. The first can be seen as a young pretty woman looking away or an old ugly woman looking down. The second image at first seems to be a cup but further examination reveals two white faces nearly kissing. Each one of these is a pattern we can see both but not at the same time because what we see, what we perceive, is created by our minds. We interpret reality and thus our own perception is always determined by our understanding of the world. Without theories about the world we perceive nothing.

Patterns are there to be recognized and the same data may be recognized in more than one way. Indeed if we are willing to look incoming information may be interpreted in may different ways. Not only that but the gestalt psychologists realized that some of the patterns that we recognize and use in understanding the world are very strong and can mislead us if we are not careful. Being able to see different patterns, more than one pattern is an immense advantage for both the artist and the scientist and the only way to become good at seeing patterns beyond what others see is to practice trying to see them.


Look at the images above. They tell us some very interesting things about pattern recognition. Recognition of the human face is very strong we tend to see faces in ordinary objects. Look at the first image. Though this is a shadowy image on an all white background we tend to be drawn to the white face in the right upper corner. The second image can be seen as either a mouse or a human face. The third and fourth images show us we can leave out details that conflict with what we are attempting to recognize. The third image has two sets of eyes and the fourth has two mouths. The fifth image shows two faces but it is difficult to see them at the same time and the mind flickers back and forth. The sixth picture illustrates how much perspective influences what we see. Of the two parallel lines the one at the top seems longer. They are in fact the same size. The two slanting lines invokes the pattern of perspective as in railway tracks leading away. The one at the top seems larger because being further away according to perspective it should be smaller to be the same size. The seventh image illustrates that recognizing three dimensional patterns is also strong. Here however we are faced with two alternative boxes both clamoring for attention. The eighth image illustrates that letters are strong patterns that clamor to be recognized. It's a H and as soon as you recognize it as a H it is difficult to see it as anything else. Patterns also change as we tend to try and continue them. In the ninth image if we start with A we will see A B C but if we start with 12 and look down we will see 12 13 14. The last image illustrates that we tend to complete regular images. It's a six pointed star or two triangles one on top of the other.

Again with the images above you may at first see only curious meaningless shapes but the mind will try to make something recognizable out of them. Once you see it is letters that say 'fly win' it will be difficult to see anything else.

Our perceptions are perceived through previous perceptions to form patterns which we impose on events and objects, in order to understand them, and which we use to predict or anticipate future events and objects. Some of this is identifying new patterns. Most of this however is recognizing old patterns and done by matching incoming data against a library of pattern images built up in our map of reality. The trouble is that when personal map of reality is fully formed we tend to feel that our library of patterns is complete and the need to identify new patterns to be unnecessary. This is only true if we do not wish to be creative and will to see the same old patterns and not new ones. One way of identifying new patterns is to try and see old patterns in new things and contexts.

Emotion and Belief.

What we see, what we hear, what colors all our senses is not just our knowledge but also our emotional state when we are afraid we may see some fearful things that are manufactured by our minds. Who does not remember seeing dark horrible shapes when alone and frightened. When we really want to see something we may also see it despite there being nothing that others can see. Bellow are some images from the comic strip Robot Man that illustrate these nicely.


What various Geniuses had to say about pattern recognition.

Almost all the great contributors to the knowledge and art of the world have had a lot to say about the benefits of being able to recognize patterns and how recognizing patterns in art transfer to and support the the ability to recognize patterns in science and vice versa.

M. C. Escher.

Escher was the great master of pattern recognition. His works have inspired mathematicians and topologists. In their book the "Sparks of Genius" the Root-Bernsteins quote Escher's Son George as follows. "The wall in the small downstairs washroom was decorated with irregular swirls of green, yellow, red, and brown....Father would take a pencil and emphasize a line here a shade there..." and find a face, "laughing, sad, grotesque, or solemn." Over the course of many months the wall "came alive with faces." Escher also enjoyed identifying "animal shapes in seemingly random patterns like clouds or wood grain."

Max Ernst. 

Max Ernst was one of the most famous of the surrealist painters who found inspiration in the patterns of wood grain in the floor of a seaside cottage when he was stuck due to heavy rain. He placed paper on the rough boards and and maid rubbings of the wood grain using a lead pencil. He later wrote that there emerged: "a dream-like succession of contradictory images." He continued, "Now my curiosity was roused and excited, and I began an impartial exploration, making use of every kind of material that happened to come into my field of vision: leaves and their veins, frayed edges of sacking, brush-strokes in a 'modern' painting, cotton unwound from a cotton reel, etc. etc."

Max Ernst's fascination with pattern recognition led to his invention of several new techniques that have revolutionized the world of art. He gave us: frottage in which paper is placed over an object and then rubber to pick up the texture; grattage in which paint is scraped onto a canvas over rough or textured objects; decalcomania in which images are made from random splotches of paint being cought between two pieces of material such as paper and canvas.

Leonardo da Vinci 

Da Vinci offered what he called, "A way of stimulating and arousing the mind to various inventions." "...a new and speculative idea, which although it may seem trivial and almost laughable, is none the less of great value in quickening the spirit of invention," "...look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of different kinds of stones; if you have to invent some scene, you may discover a similarity with different kinds of landscapes, embellished with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plants, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement: or, again, you may see battles and figures in action or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of of objects you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms." he urged students to stare at smoke, embers, clouds, and mud, and cultivate their ability to see in these mundane forms "the likeness of divine landscapes ...and an infinity of things." Such insight, he writes "comes about as it does with the sound of bells, in whose clanging you may discover every name and word that you can imagine."

Aural pattern recognition is exactly the premise of the Mother Goose rime "The Bells of St. Helens" where verbal phrases are herd in in the chimes of various church bells.

The Bells of St. Helens

Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town

"Oranges and Lemons" say the Bells of St. Clements
"Bullseyes and Targets" say the Bells of St. Margaret's
"Brickbats and Tiles" say the Bells of St. Giles
"Halfpence and Farthings" say the Bells of St. Martin's
"Pancakes and Fritters" say the Bells of St. Peter's
"Two Sticks and an Apple" say the Bells of Whitechapel
"Maids in white aprons" say the Bells at St. Katherine's
"Pokers and Tongs" say the Bells of St. John's
"Kettles and Pans" say the Bells of St. Anne's
"Old Father Baldpate" say the slow Bells of Aldgate
"You owe me Ten Shillings" say the Bells of St. Helen's
"When will you Pay me?" say the
Bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow Rich" say the Bells of Shoreditch
"Pray when will that be?" say the Bells of Stepney
"I do not know" says the Great Bell of Bow
Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town

Learning and Pattern Recognition.

Learning is always about recognizing patterns and extending them. Indeed though out this site the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle is used again and again. And what is a jigsaw puzzle but a broken pattern. We learn by finding patterns and extending them. Take learning a language for instance. How we speak and how we spell both depend on imperfect patterns. What makes these learning tasks difficult is the inconsistencies in these patterns. When a child says mouses or sheeps he has recognized a pattern and tried to continue it but is unfortunately wrong. If a child says woked or spoked he is extending a perfectly logical pattern of forming the past tense. It is the English language it self which is inconsistent. Similarly with spelling a child confronted with the spelling of the word 'once' is likely to break into tears, because it makes no sense in the patterns he recognizes for spelling. Most of this inconsistency comes about because all languages borrow from other languages which use different patterns for grammar and spelling. In this, English is probably the most borrowed of all languages and therefore the most inconsistent. On the other hand this vast collection of borrowings makes English very succinct and flexible for saying things quickly and accurately.

Science and Pattern Recognition.

Science is all about finding the patterns in nature unseen by others and filling in the blanks by extending them. The metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle is every bit as appropriate for science as it is for the concept of learning it self. it is appropriate for both observation and conception. In "Sparks of Genius" Chen Ning Yang a physicist and Christiane Nusslein-Volhard an embryologist, are both quoted for their views on pattern recognition and their use of the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle. Nusslein-Volhard says, "The most important thing is not any one particular piece, but finding enough pieces and enough connections between them to recognize the whole picture. The Root-Bernsteins say, "The most critical part of research is not getting the data, but making sense of it." Yang puts it like this, "This constant searching for for new associations, subconsciously or consciously, is one important element in scientific research. You don't constantly attack one problem. If you have a lot of small linkages, you try to make them fit, and then once in a while you find one piece which can put five pieces together. That joy is indescribable. The Root-Bernsteins say, "When enough data and concepts cohere, the conceptual puzzles become conceptual patterns or 'pictures,' scientists call them theories or natural laws."


The Root-Bernsteins continue:

"Scientific puzzle solving is like jigsaw-puzzle solving in another way as well. When enough pieces have been fitted together, they may define either a whole or a hole. Both are valuable. The whole is a new structure that makes sense of the available data. But the hole - what is not there - is also useful because it is a valuable clue to the shape of our ignorance. Having defined that shape, we we can now look for pieces to fill the hole. Our search for linkages is no longer random. We have a specific question to answer and definite criteria to use for evaluating possible answers. Almost every scientist of note has said something along the lines of 'properly defining your question gets you more than half way to its solution.' Questions, from this point of view, are also patterns."

Mathematics and Pattern recognition.

Mathematics or the extension and improvement of it is also all about recognizing patterns. In fact mathematics is all about recognizing and defining those patterns and thus mathematicians have to be very good at recognizing those patterns. The Root-Bernsteins in their book tell a story about the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss which clearly illustrates this:

"As a young student Gauss and his classmates were asked to add up all the numbers from one to a hundred. We can imagine the groans. But a few seconds later Gauss gave the correct answer. How could he possibly have performed such a feat? He had not done the calculation before, nor was he a phenomenal calculator. He was, however, an extraordinary pattern recognizer. What he noticed is that if you take a number at the beginning of the series 0 and 100 (0 being implied in the original problem) and add it to a number in the same position at the end of the series, it always adds up to 100. Thus, 100+0=100; 99+1=100; 98+2=100; 97+3=100; and so on, up to 51+49=100. That leaves the number 50 unpaired. So the 50 pairs of numbers that each add up to 100 = 5000. Then add the in the unpaired 50 and there's the answer; 5050.

Children and Pattern Recognition.

It should not be surprising to learn that we were all better at recognizing patterns when we were young. We probably all remember looking at clouds when young and finding all manner of wonderful things hidden in their amorphous shapes. When young we may have contemplated stains on the walls or ceilings and discerned strange and wondrous delights. As we get older our delight in finding these hidden pictures usually becomes suppressed by parental teacher and peer pressure. Thus the ability tends to wane and we tend to stop looking for patterns and are no longer able to experience joy in finding them. Once we lose the ability to discern patterns in this way it is almost impossible to regain it.

Practice as iterative improvement is a necessity for life long creativity.

If we stop practicing using this pattern recognizing facility, our ability to use it to make great discoveries will naturally fade. All the creative tools need to be continually exercised and improved in order to be usable for creative tasks and problems. Of course in creative geniuses this facility does not fade because creative geniuses tend to continue to exercise this facility throughout their lives. As to why this facility fades in more average people, it seems likely that like many of the facilities of childhood it becomes seen as childish activity and thus avoided. Also it is probably discouraged by parents and teachers for the same reason. This site asserts that the ability to recognize patterns in the ordinary and chaos that surrounds us is an incredibly useful and creative talent that we should try to preserve at all costs. This site suggests that this facility can only be preserved by encouraging its continuing use and that all efforts to prevent children from experiencing curious patterns that no one else can see should be terminated immediately.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Prodigies Genius Creativity Social Creativity Thin Slicing Observing Imaging Abstracting
Forming Patterns Analogizing Enaction Empathizing Dimensional Modeling Playing Transforming Synthesizing