The brain as a pattern-matching organ (Part One)

We make sense of (intellectually understand) everything we see, hear, touch, by matching the information with a neural element (or pattern) already on file in our brain. The continuous stream of information is processed quickly and efficiently. The familiar information is a close match (we understand it well); unfamiliar information takes a little longer but with the use of an approximate pattern, we are able to say “Hmmm, it is like…” thus making sense of new information.

The healthy brain has a fascination for the unfamiliar or novel, it is continually ready for the challenge of making sense of things it does not understand, continually learning, thereby adding to its library of patterns. The term ‘approximate pattern’ is important, for without this, the new information cannot be processed or understood.

It could be said then, that the brain is a pattern-matching organ. This definition has implications for understanding the healthy brain, as well as getting a clearer picture of what happens when things go wrong. The implications include:

  • metaphor (‘it is like’) is fundamental part of information processing
  • what we ‘know’ depends on the number of patterns we have access to
  • learning relies on new information being added to existing approximate patterns
  • our model of ‘reality’ comes from the patterns we use

Many patterns are instinctive, they were formed during the development of the foetus and are necessary for survival – avoiding harm and getting our needs met. In the process of making sense of things, the information from our sense organs passes through the survival part of the brain that filters the stimuli for threats to our needs getting or being met.

Pattern-matching at this level takes place before any conscious awareness, it is pre-language and pre-thought. The implications of this fairly recent understanding are significant, the principle one being thought as we know it, is a ‘re-presentation’ of the original stimuli that may or may not have changed depending on the patterns used to make sense of it. This ‘filtering’ process means innate human needs influence thought itself.

The patterns used in this filtering process include ones we were born with, and ones added during our formative years and beyond. While some of these patterns are generic, many are unique to the individual – formed by learning and experience. Pattern-matching is an efficient way for the brain to make sense of stimuli based on what it has processed before, and avoids having to deal with a vast array of experience as though it is a first-time event. (Alzheimer’s is characterised by poor access to patterns, thus responding to each experience as a new event.)

While pattern-matching may be an efficient process, it is subject to factors that may increase or decrease its capacity to select appropriate patterns for specific situations. Emotions, for example, essentially prepare the body for action of some kind, from the extreme fight flight freeze response that marshals a host of body systems in preparation for action, to a more simple tactile sympathy gesture that may have little more physiological dimension than a moistening of the eyes. With heightened emotional arousal the level of sophistication in the brain’s search for an appropriate pattern is reduced, and a pattern from a limited range will usually be selected.

This primitive pattern-matching is known as ‘black and white’ thinking as the shades of grey, those insights that give each situation a here-and-now uniqueness, are lacking. Perfect for survival responses, but decidedly limiting if used on an on-going basis. Where the primitive patterns are used over and over again, thinking becomes self-focused, narrow, and pessimistic instead of expansive, explorative and others-focused. This thinking style is usually present in stress, depression and anxiety-related conditions, and the recognition that patterns are the filter through which all thoughts are formed, and the understanding that emotional arousal (excessive worry for example) causes a primitive thinking style, provides for effective therapeutic approaches.

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Merv was a teacher, trainer and therapist using the Human Givens approach to emotional health. He is the first Australian qualified in this revolutionary treatment method, and since retiring from private practice, spreads his time between running an online course in psychotherapy and sailing his yacht.

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