Do humans see patterns where there aren’t any? Let’s talk…

The other day I threw a crumpled bag into a bin and almost missed. It hung on the edge for a while. Quite suddenly it began collapsing into the bin, flexing as it did so. In a strict sense this was all understandable; I’d crushed the bag, meaning the energy of my fingers was stored by the resistance of the material to being folded which, once the pressure of my hand was released, began undoing itself.

Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.
Beach stones, Makara, New Zealand.

But it did look a bit like a mortally wounded object quietly collapsing into death. And that got me thinking about the way humans see patterns in things, even when there aren’t any, and then about how even science can lead us along disastrously wrong tracks, sometimes.

It’s all to do with pattern matching. We innately put structures on anything we see.  That’s how people see faces in random shapes – such as burnt toast – for example.

The theory is that pattern matching was a survival trait. Out on the African veldt, our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed it not just because they might be jumped by a hidden predator, but because they could also spot lurking prey. Because any pattern in the local flora might be predator or prey, the system tended to trigger even when nothing was there – but the false alarms didn’t matter, because there was no cost to them. Whereas failure in a life-or-death situation usually meant death. Pattern matching was also very important within the social groups, for recognising faces – in particular, on a friend-or-foe basis.

And so we got very, very good at subconscious pattern-matching what we literally saw – a process that also framed and guided how we are hard-wired, meaning it influences how we think.

Among other things, this is how conspiracy theories get legs. But another outcome has been that even the strictest methodology can sometimes get suckered in by an apparently consistent pattern and structure – one that appears compelling and where rigorous analysis of the internal structure can’t find fault. Often this structure is built on only partial data – where what isn’t questioned is the single mis-step that led to that pattern being found – and often that mis-step is socially mediated.

That’s also how miscarriages of justice sometimes occur: someone innocent is ‘profiled’ and given place in the pattern – sometimes, to the point of being charged and having to go through the court system, even though the link is a single piece of circumstantial evidence – or an intellectual structure that has been made to fit. That’s how witch hunting worked, for instance.

Ptolemaic orbits, with epicycles, for Venus and Mercury, from the 1777 Encyclopedia Britannica. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Ptolemaic orbits, with epicycles, for Venus and Mercury, from the 1777 Encyclopedia Britannica. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The sciences sometimes fall prey to the issue, often because things aren’t completely understood. The ancient Greeks knew the Earth revolved around the Sun, but then along came Ptolemy and his geocentric thinking, which seemed to fit the pattern as it was known. It was only as time went on that things got complicated, when the movement of the planets (in particular) didn’t fit the simple model. One answer was to add ‘epicycles’, in which the planets went through circular motions around their fixed points. And then epicycles had to be added to epicycles.

Finally Copernicus and others went back to the old Greek notion of a central Sun, which resolved all the problems – especially after Tycho Brahe pointed out that planets orbited in ellipses. The Ptolemaic system, with all its epicyclic epicycles and other hideous complexities, was in fact purely a human intellectual artefact. But it didn’t go down without a fight, shall we say – leading me to wonder about how the illusions of truth produced by conceptual pattern-matching tend to also inform our ideas of ‘reality’. Especially, again, when socially mediated.

I see this phenomenon all the time in history, where the interpretative side of the discipline revolves around identifying patterns in the past – the ‘meaning’ of the raw data – and then arguing over them.

I also wonder about the whole of quantum mechanics – the real stuff, not the new-age woo – which is just so bizarre that Einstein, certainly, thought the more likely explanation was that he and his colleagues, whose description of it remains the orthodoxy, had missed something.

I’ve written all of this in the very broadest terms, because it’s such a very broad topic and I’m asking questions rather than offering answers. But I think it’s worth a further look. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

15 thoughts on “Do humans see patterns where there aren’t any? Let’s talk…

  1. Yes, I think we do see patterns that (perhaps) aren’t there. We need to believe there is structure to our world, to believe there are things we can count, because a world of chaos is terrifying. My patterns for today. 😁


  2. Oh, now, my best example of finding patterns where there were none dates back to my teenage days. I had a small television set in the bedroom, with rabbit-ear antennas, and hung aluminum foil on the ends of the ears to improve the reception a tiny bit. And I noticed one night that, through the light from outside, one of the sheets of foil had a clear human face in it. And this annoyed me because I knew if I tried to draw a face it wouldn’t be anywhere near so well-formed as that.


    1. I have similar problems. Even a rough outline “face” on a wetcshower curtain or shadowed pattern on the ceiling is better than I can draw. (There are actually amoeba on Saturn with better drawing skills than I have, but we won’t go there. Suffice to say there are careers for which I have no aptitude…


  3. Yes, it’s pretty obvious. The human brain is a highly specialized pattern-matching computer. It just so happens that very specific skill has very broad reaching applications. Humanity did far more than survive, we dominated. We became more than predator, we became hyper-predator. And it really is funny how we see things that aren’t there. But, that’s just the downside for having a brain that’s highly focused on seeking patterns.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I completely agree that we’re primed to see patterns, though I’d take it a step further and suggest that what we’re primed to see agency, usually something malevolent and focused on us. A guinea fowl pecking seeds has as much agency as a lion stalking our ancestor, but it was only the lion that would remove our ancestor from the gene pool. I think that translates to your point about conspiracy theories. They tend to be evidence of a malevolent power. I’ve never heard of conspiracy detailing a secret government plan to reduce road deaths or discourage burglars.

    There was a great TED talk on the subject my Michael Shermer a few years ago:


  5. As a Zen Buddhist, I believe each moment is unique but our past provides a way to identify the present moment. The key is not to cling to the similarity but to focus on what is occurring to fully appreciate the experience. It’s a lifetime practice, at least for me, but one I find extremely rewarding.

    My comment is a bit off topic but your fine post reminded me of my daily practice. Well done, Matthew.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. To me your thoughts seem very much on topic because a lot of the concept of living in the moment is intended, I suspect, to break through the hard wiring of pattern and allow us to find a fuller potential. One of the most powerful patterns in humanity, I suspect, is the way we live in the past (with its memories of triumph or failure, and its ability to reinforce self-image and ego), and we worry about the future: but so seldom do we accept or in many cases even perceive the moment of the present.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.