Patternicity, a Trick of the Mind

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures or hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. This is “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Once you see a pattern, you can’t un-see it. When the same truth keeps repeating itself, it’s hard to pretend that it’s just a coincidence. One reason it’s impossible to un-see trends is that our minds are engineered to seek out patterns and to assign meanings to them. Humans are a meaning-making species.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition: A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity”).

Our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction.

The problem is that our brains keep the pattern detection engine on all the time, which makes us susceptible to turning meaningless patterns (coincidences, etc.) into monumental events.

Summing-up: Our brains are exceptionally good at finding patterns, and it’s a good thing, but we must be aware that our brain is always looking for patterns, and develop the discipline to separate a meaningful pattern from a meaningless one.

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