The brain as a pattern matching organ (Part Two)

Every time your purchases are scanned electronically, a process called ‘pattern recognition’ identifies each item, adds them together, and prints out a docket. The bar code is read by a scanner, it sends the code details to a data bank which finds a perfect match and identifies this unique item among thousands in the store. The human brain uses a similar process – it makes sense of things by matching what it sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, with what is already on file as a neural element or ‘pattern’. Better described by UCLA Berkeley Professor George Lakoff: Thoughts make use of an extensive but unconscious system of metaphorical concepts – a typically concrete realm used to comprehend a different domain.

The electronic scanning process relies on a perfect match and can only make sense of what is scanned if the exact code has been stored in the data bank. The human brain however, is metaphorical in nature and not limited by only being able to make sense of exact matches, or what is already on file. It can use approximations to make some sense of totally unfamiliar experience. An example of this process could be seen in a recent ABC documentary of the first contact indigenous people had with Europeans during the atomic testing in remote South Australia during the 1950’s. The film crew interviewed Yuwali, a Martu tribeswoman who was a teenager at the time, and her expression upon seeing a white vehicle approaching was “Look, those white rocks have come alive and they are rolling toward the camp!” Yuwali was making sense of new information by matching it with what she already knew. With more exposure to white people, more sense-making patterns were added, and she was able to make those distinctions between vehicles and rocks.

What if ‘approximations’ are used instead of distinctive patterns to make sense of our environment? Good question, especially given the subtleties of social interaction and the demands of relationships. Most of the people I see in my practice are using a limited array of patterns, and many people are helped enormously by adding to their repertoire of patterns. Being able to draw on an expanded array of sense-making patterns increases the prospect of accuracy – their perceptions are closer to a shared model of reality. Social interaction becomes more fulfilling, and relationships more rewarding.

Not all people are helped. There are some people who seem unable to accept that reality is what each of us build using our experiences, our learning and our sense-making process. Some people regard reality as an absolute, a franchise they have exclusive rights to, a view that allows them to dismiss other’s views so readily. They hold their point of view with tenacity not unlike a primitive survival response – their sense of life, identity and future seems to be threatened if they contemplate a revision to their thinking. Little wonder their social interaction is characterised by superficial, short-term, one-sided encounters and their relationships limited to those able (or resigned) to tolerate their inflexibility.

Reminds me of philosopher Karl Popper’s words: … even great scientists fail to reach that self-critical attitude which would prevent them from feeling very sure of themselves while gravely misjudging things.

While customers would not tolerate ‘approximations’ in the purchasing process, humans need to be open to the possibility that the sense-making process may not be serving our best interest, and prepared to part with the ‘feeling very sure’ in order to ask that crucial question: Is this how it really is, or just the way I think it is?

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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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