Humans are soft, weak creatures with mediocre hearing and eyesight. We’re clever, but in terms of raw problem–solving power, we’re not exceptionally so. Yet we have something, some characteristic, some edge… some mojo. A magick so tremendous that it more than makes up for all of our myriad weaknesses and inabilities and allows us not just to survive, but to thrive in even the most godawful conditions.
I offer that the difference is our ability to match patterns. More accurately, it’s our ability to abstract patterns — to see the patterns of the patterns. We can metathink. It is this facility that underlies every other mental ability we have, especially language. Perhaps it even leads inescapably to consciousness.
Everything your mind does, it does in terms of patterns. Everything. That’s why we suck so badly at things like arithmetic, and yet manage to intuit complex computational feats such as driving, playing catch, spotting friends in crowds or understanding what our date is saying in a noisy restaurant. Our pattern-matching ability is absolutely astounding. It is the only thing your mind can do that a machine can’t do better (emotions possibly excepted.) It’s a good thing too, because it’s pretty much the only tool in our toolbox. We have to use it for everything, and that we can drive a decent nail into the woodwork using a knife is testament to our great skill with the knife.
The benefits of having brains that process things this way are huge. If we weren’t excellent pattern recognizers, we’d be unable to learn. We’d never spot the lion hiding in the grass or the mugger loitering by the ATM. If we didn’t take it a level up — if we were unable to recognize the concept of pattern, to make patterns of patterns, then we’d never see how the solution to one problem could be successfully applied to a different, apparently unrelated problem. We wouldn’t be able to understand language, or art, or science, or culture. Even worse, we’d never understand why such things are good to understand.
True, this pattern recognition business is tricky. Since we run on patterns, think of everything in terms of patterns, we need them. We cling to them. They are our touchstone. If we can’t see any pattern to things, we will invent one to comfort ourselves, and tend to value it over even truth. Chaos and randomness scare (or thrill) us because they are the hardest and most thankless input for a pattern-matching machine.
Optical illusions provide an amusing way of demonstrating that your pattern-recognition cannot be relied upon without question. It’s not just a sensory problem, though.It’s a problem in everything you do . Your memory is highly unreliable because you don’t actually remember much — you reconstruct the way it probably was based on the patterns you recognize. Eyewitness testimonies of unexpected events are notoriously unreliable for the same reason.
We can never directly know reality, and we can never be sure that anything we think or sense is an accurate representation of reality. We’re generally in the ballpark, but when it comes to the fine detail, the boundary cases, the surprising or the chaotic — anything that is too far from the patterns we’re used to — we will distort our already imperfect perception of reality to fit into some preformed pattern.
What saves us from a complete disconnect, from living in a carefully constructed prison of artifice, of falsely locking onto a single pattern as the True Pattern, is that we can understand that it’s all just pattern-matching, and take control of the process. We can’t avoid doing it, but we can do it with intention and in ways that both use it to best effect and minimize error and madness. Those who avoid this, who are happy in their cages (gilded or not), are electing to remain asleep under a spell of their own casting. They are the poor sufferers of the Curse of Greyface.