Pattern Recognition Saves Lives

On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.

Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.

Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.

So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:

1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an    underlying causative process other than chance.

2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.

The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.

The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.

In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?

These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.

It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.

Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.

By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.

Knowledge as an obstacle to learning

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With today’s omnipresent media it seems that the average person knows more than ever before in human history. Google searches, wikipedia articles, and countless online news sites make huge amounts of information available. This information bombards the modern person from all directions: TV screens at gas stations and checkout lines, 24 hour news channels, magazines, shared articles on Facebook, DIY websites, and Youtube tutorials. How often do people quote some bit of information that they “know” but they have no idea where the information even came from?

 
I have been wondering about this phenomenon for a while and I have become more and more critical of the whole idea of “knowing.” These days I try really hard not to recite bits of information that I’m not sure about, where the source is forgotten, or at least I put a strong disclaimer on what I spout. For those who are interested there is a field of philosophy that deals with knowledge, how it is acquired, and how it influences belief, certainty, and the concept of truth. This branch of philosophy is called epistemology and is worth some reading. For a basic article see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

 
Lately, I have been leaning towards the idea that “knowing” or knowledge is one of the major obstacles preventing learning. This phenomenon is easily observed in young children who are the masters of learning. They constantly ask unusual questions and make novel connections when young. This flow of novel thinking is essential to how children learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often pruned out and paved over with “knowledge” in the process of socialization. I’m frequently saddened by how adults respond to the often keen and always worthy questions of children. The first possibility and perhaps the most common is for adults to ignore or not notice a child’s question. They might reject the question outright or not take it seriously. If they do provide an answer for the child it often is an answer that shuts off the child’s line of inquiry. Once the child “knows” this answer, often misinformation, they are much less likely to pursue the matter further. They think that they know. Following is an example of this unfortunate stifling of the learning process.

 

I was once visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, an impressive center with diverse animals and plants in well made exhibits. At the enclosure for the desert bighorn sheep I was watching the adult male of the herd repeatedly bashing his head against a large palm tree. From the sizable dent in the tree it was evident that the ram did this on a regular basis. A large group of people stood milling around the exhibit and I could only imagine the pent up stress and boredom of such a creature. Just then, a little girl asked out loud, “Does that hurt it when it hits its head like that?” It seemed to me like a legitimate question rooted in a feeling of empathy for another creature. However, the girls mom seemed to think it was a stupid question and answered quickly without a second thought, “Of course not. Haven’t you seen them bashing heads all day long on TV?”

 

The mother’s answer is based on “knowledge of the the world” that she has acquired over  the years of her life (apparently much of this from watching TV). She may have seen bits of documentaries about bighorn sheep where the males ram into each other during the mating season. Even more likely she saw this behavior in a popular beer commercial that ran during a Superbowl. From this she assumed that since this is normal behavior for them that it probably doesn’t hurt. She also expressed a high degree of certainty about her “knowledge” in her response to her daughter. She did not add any modifiers or maybes. She did not admit her own lack of an answer to the question.

Chances are that bighorn rams have lots of anatomical features that mitigate the potential damage of their intense head-on impacts. Chances are that the male we were watching was not causing too much damage to himself by ramming the palm tree. However, the point is that we will probably never know if he was experiencing pain. More importantly, the girl’s question is totally valid and a perfect entree into a fascinating line of inquiry that could open many doors of learning. Let me create an alternative scenario where an adult did not insultingly answer the question in a way that stifled a potential learning experience:

At the bighorn sheep exhibit the adult male repeatedly bashed his head against the palm tree in the corner. A large dent in the trunk showed that this was a regular behavior. Just then a little girl asked out loud, “Mommy, does that hurt him when he bangs his head like that?” A thoughtful moment passed before the woman answered, “ I’m not sure honey, how could we find that out?” Instantly, more neurons are firing in the girl’s brain, more connections are being made, and she is forced to think creatively. She recalls her own experiences of pain while also searching her memory for examples of other animals experiencing pain. “ I know that some animals can feel pain, remember that injured horse we saw?” The question hangs in the air before she continues, “But how can we know what they are feeling if we can’t talk to them?”

It is easy to imagine all the possible lessons that could stem from the girl’s original question. Maybe this conversation will lead her to become a behavioral biologist or inspire her to study the neuroscience of pain. Unfortunately, all it takes is an unthoughtful and self-assured answer in the wrong tone of voice from an adult to stifle the learning opportunity. This scenario can also happen between adults, in a whole community, or within the microcosm of our own mind. I think we must be careful of this tendency if we truly want to learn. For true learning is a process, a way of seeing and thinking, it is not the mere accumulation of bits of information.

Be always wary of knowledge and answers; seek instead the power of good questions and child-like curiosity.

For more info on the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum see here: http://www.desertmuseum.org/

Learning how to Learn

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One of the “meta” topics that I’m most interested in is learning. Learning about new subjects and learning new skills is great but learning how to learn is even better. If you know how to learn in a more effective way you can apply this skill to the learning of any new material. This provides flexibility and adaptability that are increasingly important in the modern world. When the future is uncertain and overwhelmingly complex it is hard to know what skills and subject matters are most important to learn. Will it be more useful for me to study small scale food production, wilderness survival, conflict-resolution, or self-defense? Or would I be better off focusing all my energy on the narrow subject matter of a particular career? In unpredictable and rapidly-changing times one thing is certain: being good at learning itself is a major advantage.

A look at human history and prehistory shows that the ability to adapt to new and rapidly changing conditions is one of the hallmarks of our species. It is likely that much of our biological hardware and cultural software arose to deal with the difficulties of an unpredictable environment and novel challenges. There are many debatable things about human evolution and human nature. However, one thing that is apparent is that we are born to learn.

If we are innately so good at learning how come we often find learning new things difficult, especially as we get older? Unfortunately, our culture, that all-powerful tool, often dictates to us what is possible and not possible. Recent neuroscience continues to show us the incredible feats of plasticity, connection, and memorization that the brain is capable of. Many popular beliefs and cultural assumptions about the limits of the brain have been totally blown out of the water. “An old dog can’t learn new tricks” is a good example of a cultural meme that is not based on brain science and can influence our capabilities. Luckily, we do not have the brains of dogs, and we are indeed capable of learning new tricks, new languages, and other new skills as we age. The burgeoning field of neuroplasticity continues to find evidence that the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is far greater than previously assumed.

I will be writing several entries about learning since it is one of the great meta-topics under which all of my other interests fall. I will get more into specific techniques for improved learning while delving into particular topics of study and also philosophizing about learning and knowledge in general. I will tie in current research in cognitive science because we are in the golden age of brain research. Everyone with a brain should be interested.

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