Sunday, May 19, 2013

Part 3: What do you know? I mean really?

1 + 1 = 2, or does it? Why can't 1 + 1 = 11 or I-don't-really-care?

Our brains are built for pattern recognition. It takes time and work to convince the brain that an arbitrary shape on a piece of paper has a specific meaning that will not change. It takes time for the brain to learn that a sound has a particular meaning. But once that connection is made, the brain will quickly latch on to other ideas, assigning meaning to just about anything it experiences.

That does not mean that these things actually have meaning, or that the pattern the brain recognizes is real. Or that the pattern is good for us.

A child draws a circle and some squiggly lines on a piece of paper. We may determine that the circle is a sun, or a flower. We may ask the child "Don't you want clouds in your picture?" and said child looks at us strangely because to the child that's not a sun, or a flower. It's a hand. A palm and fingers. We can see this if its pointed out to us, but our brains know that a hand isn't just a circle with squiggly lines, so that connection isn't immediately made.

As we grow (i.e., age) our minds form patterns from the world around us. Many of us get sick during the winter--how much of this is because of physical stimuli and how much is because the mind sees "sick in the winter" as a recognizable pattern? We sleep more easily at night than during the day. How much of that is pattern recognition on the part of the brain? Infants have to be taught that this pattern is more acceptable.

At some point it may be necessary to differentiate between what we know, and the patterns we have grown used to seeing. If I get ill every January, there's no real physical reason for it. The illness, yes, but that particular month? How much of that is the brain, running along a well developed pattern? When a marathon runner starts feeling tired at mile ten in spite of years of training, is that real exhaustion, or the brain trying to get her to stop?

Why can a singer hit higher notes when he isn't reading music? Because the brain has connected an arbitrary limit to that line on the page and determined the pattern?

In research when they talk of the placebo effect they're talking about the percentage of people who feel a real improvement in spite of the fact that the "medicine" they took was deliberately useless. But they believed it would help, and so it did.

There are so many of these. If you identify the patterns in your life, you may find that they are not patterns at all.

If you tell your brain to stop and the pattern stops...

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