Humans and the pattern seeking brain


Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.

Micheal Shermer

Apophenia /æpɵˈfiːniə/ is the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

The term is attributed to Klaus Conrad by Peter Brugger who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general, such as with gambling and paranormal phenomena.

In 2008, Michael Shermer coined the word “patternicity”, defining it as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”.  In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer says that we have “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency”, which Shermer calls “agenticity”.


I call this process “patternicity” — that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it’s not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. So let’s do a thought experiment. You are a hominid three million years ago walking on the plains of Africa. Your name is Lucy, okay? And you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Your next decision could be the most important one of your life. Well, if you think that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it’s just the wind, you’ve made an error in cognition, made a Type I error, false positive. But no harm. You just move away. You’re more cautious. You’re more vigilant. On the other hand, if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it’s a dangerous predator, you’re lunch. You’ve just won a Darwin award. You’ve been taken out of the gene pool.

Now the problem here is that patternicities will occur whenever the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error. This is the only equation in the talk by the way. We have a pattern detection problem that is assessing the difference between a Type I and a Type II error is highly problematic, especially in split-second, life-and-death situations. So the default position is just: Believe all patterns are real — All rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not just the wind. And so I think that we evolved … there was a natural selection for the propensity for our belief engines, our pattern-seeking brain processes, to always find meaningful patterns and infuse them with these sort of predatory or intentional agencies that I’ll come back to.

Ted, Michael Shermer

We’re predisposed, as pattern-seeking mammals, to find “causes” for things we can’t explain.This is why we’re all so riveted by stories of any kind – movies, TV shows, novels, theater. These big brains of ours love explication and resolution.

It think it also explains why most of us are predisposed to believe in the supernatural. It’s likely that there is/was a evolutionary advantage to making up answers and inventing rituals that help us blunt or deny the reality and finality of death.

What happens is that as science begins to provide provable explanations for many of these things, supernatural belief gets continually edged into smaller and smaller “gaps.” Quantum physics is the new “gap” for many believers, though it’s not likely to provide a refuge for the supernatural once it begins to be better understood.

When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightening rod, preachers all over New England ranted and raved against him! They actually taught that lightening and thunder was god’s wrath being “poured out” on evil people – and they thought Franklin was playing god with his invention that kept many “wicked” people from dying in house fires.

We are a pattern seeking species. Through our ability to differentiate similar from dissimilar, we are able to produce complex environments like blogs for example. The language we use on blogs is a complex pattern of symbols, shapes, and sounds which we are able to make sense of through the processes of similar and dissimilar – the processes of visual and auditory discrimination.

If we think back to out tribal ancestors, this ability to form visual and auditory patterns of recognition would have been a survival advantage. Not only would it have helped mankind to be able to progress to more and more complex technological and cultural concepts – but it would have enabled many of our ancestors to survive, literally.

Not only are we pattern seeking animals, we are a species which is honed evolutionary for physical survival. The ancestor who was in the forest at night and saw a shape in the woods with which he/she was unfamiliar, would have probably quickly visually processed if the shape was friend or foe. If the shape could not be quickly identified as a friend, or as something harmless, it would have been advantageous from a survival point of view to assume that the shape was harmful. And as the natural world was distinctly more harmful to human survival than it is now for many of us – the wary individual would have been one who assumed harm.

Of course, when he or she got back into the comfort and security of the tribe and the fire, he/she would have described this menacing shape which confronted him in the darkness. As danger lurked in nature in either human or animal form – the shape, whether it was a tree trunk or not – may have been interpreted to be a threatening combination of something human-like but not human, animal like, but not a known animal.

We can still see this survival mechanism in play with other herd species such as zebras or deer. It is advantageous to assume the worst when grazing on the plain. The deer which is “spooked” over a small sound or an odd shadow, may increase the survival of himself and also the herd.

So fear or anxiety is a survival mechanism, but continual fear would be deleterious as the processes of living would not occur if a species was in a continual state of fear or apprehension. The trade off to this survival mechanism is that in many circumstances the fear is irrational. How many times in a herd situation, is the herd frightened by a sound or by something visual which does not pose any threat to its existence?

So basically as a pattern seeking species which is honed through evolution towards survival, we are fearful of situations, sounds, and images which we can even slightly define as a potential threat. These threats, irrational and imagined in many instances, take on the attributes and characteristics of KNOWN threats. Human being’s known threats are other humans and other powerful animals – which is why these “mysterious” sounds and shapes take on the attributes and characteristics of known dangers. So a shape in the forest becomes human-Quotation Mark 4 but not completely human and a sound in the forest, or in the house becomes the sound of an animal predator.

From fellow blogger, BeepBeepItsMe:

Quite simply, humans are amazing pattern-recognition machines. They have the ability to recognize many different types of patterns – and then transform these “recursive probabalistic fractals” into concrete, actionable steps. If you’ve ever watched a toddler learn words and concepts, you can almost see the brain neurons firing as the small child starts to recognize patterns for differentiating between objects. Intelligence, then, is really just a matter of being able to store more patterns than anyone else.

Dominic Basulto


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