Fill in the blank: 1, 2, 3, 4, __. You most likely said “5” without even having to think about it. This is because your brain has long since memorized the pattern of our numeric system, and can access this pattern, automatically, at a moment’s notice.
The human brain is designed to recognize patterns with incredible acuity and alacrity. Our brains catalogue all our long-term memories, identifying and memorizing patterns along the way. Once you see that 5 comes after 4 enough times, you realize that 5 will always come after 4 — it’s a rule, now. Your brain has also learned, for another example, what signs to look for in determining whether food is okay to eat; you probably only have to examine a moldy loaf of bread for less than a second to determine that it should be disposed of. And so on. Pattern-recognition is clearly essential for our survival and skill-development; and our recognition abilities only increase as we take in more and more information (a master chess player, for instance, can calculate in a matter of seconds a series of ideal moves that would take a newbie weeks to figure out). However, this post is about the ways that our pattern-addicted brains can get it wrong — to the detriment of our mental health.
“Apophenia” is the general psychological term for when our brains perceive patterns where there aren’t any. This is a pretty typical occurrence, and not always a harmful one. A banal example would be seeing shapes in clouds: even though we know, rationally, that a cloud is a random collection of water molecules, our brains will selectively interpret the information to concoct a picture that isn’t really there. What one person will see in a cloud will depend on their past experiences, and will invariably differ from what someone else will see. One article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience contends that “superior pattern processing (SPP)…[is] the fundamental basis of most, if not all, unique features of the human brain including intelligence, language, imagination, invention, and the belief in imaginary entities such as ghosts,” which is all well and good. However, the article goes on to say that “impaired or dysregulated SPP is fundamental to cognitive and psychiatric disorders.”
In other words, the same mechanism of our brains that has allowed our species to ascend to dominance on this planet is also the cause of all our misery. To illustrate the dangerous allure of false patterns, look at gambling. People who are addicted to using slot-machines will argue that, since they have lost all their money so far, they are obviously “due” for a big win. This is demonstrably untrue — you always have the same, crappy odds at winning a slot machine no matter how many times you play. But the human brain looks at this pattern: “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, ___,” and presumes that the blank must be a “win”! This is a false pattern, but one our brains are convinced of. Some form of this fallacious thought-process is present throughout all forms of gambling (most famously in roulette, where studies have shown that the more times you land on black, the more your brain is convinced that the next spin will land on red, even though it is always a 50/50 chance).
Our pattern-recognition mechanism is also highly corruptible due to its selective nature. When searching for connections, our brains have to quickly decide what information to focus on and what information to ignore, and can therefore fall prey to negative biases brought on by depression, anxiety, or other cognitive issues that force you to focus on negative information. Someone with poor self-esteem might make three mistakes and do three things correctly; but if they ignore the three positive things, their brains will read the pattern as : I never do anything right. As someone who suffers from depression, I know that I tend to form very unfavorable opinions of myself. I might say, “I am unlovable,” and when asked, “What about all the people who love you?” … I am lost for a response, because the truth is, I wasn’t thinking about those people at all.
The most important thing to realize about our pattern-forming brains is that they are forming patterns based on our subjective past experiences and beliefs. You look at a cloud and see a duck; I see a kid with a baseball bat. But maybe I happen to like baseball more than you, and perhaps you recently passed by a pond. At the end of the day, we see what we want to see; or, more accurately, we see what we already think we’re going to see. If you think your experience of the world is objective and your conclusions unassailable, you are wrong. We are on a never-ending quest for meaning in the complex information that surrounds us — but we must be careful not to take the findings of our quest too seriously, no matter how compelling they may seem. Our big, beautiful brains may be the world’s best pattern-finders, but they are also the best pattern-inventors. The price of our intelligence is the ability to out-think ourselves.