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Never Doubt The Power of Patterns

Imagine starting every day being dropped in a maze you have never seen before and having to find the exit. Nothing is familiar. Nothing is recognizable. Success is determined through trial and error, and every day starts from ground zero. Frustrating? Yes. Inefficient? Absolutely! This is a world without two cognitive processes called pattern recognition and unconscious inference. These cognitive processes influence real-life behaviors, activities, and outcomes. It is because of these processes we take many things we do effortlessly every day for granted.But what is pattern recognition and how does it play an important role in our everyday lives? Pattern recognition is a cognitive process that refers to our ability to recognize the large amounts of objects in our environment and then label and identify these objects. Pattern recognition is our ability to identify myriad different patterns, transform these patterns into individual, unique, and respective mental representations stored in memory, and then be able to retrieve this information and apply it to new incoming environmental stimuli to recognize new objects (Michaels & Carello, 1981).

Folding Laundry as an Example of Pattern Recognition

Let’s apply this simple, mundane task of folding laundry and how pattern recognition plays an important role in our ability to achieve this task efficiently and correctly.

Image 1. Hamper of clean laundry.

If I were to hand you a laundry basket of clean clothes all mixed together, appearing like a big blob of cloth (similar to Image 1) and asked you to fold and sort it into long-sleeve shirts, short-sleeve shirts, pants, shorts, underwear, socks, and sweaters, I am 99.9% confident you could do it easily. Why? Your ability to recognize patterns. Clothing has various features such as shape, size, material, color, and weight that each play a part in helping us accurately and quickly identify articles of clothing and link them together by type.

Image 2. The above image illustrates how we might identify the shape of a pair of pants and how our brain might represent the shape of a pair of pants in memory.

Image 3. This image reveals how a pair of pants actually looks in the real-world.

Let’s consider a pair of pants and how we recognize pants as … pants. Pants are sewn as a three-holed article of clothing with one big hole at the top followed by two cylinder-like shapes each with a separate hole at the bottom (shown clearly in Image 2). We recognize Image 3 (blue jeans) as pants, due to these fundamental characteristics (shown in Image 2) even though it displays other features such as cuffs, stitching, buttons, and pockets. Regardless of these differences we can still recognize the shape of both as pants.


Image 4. In looking at this picture of clothes on a clothesline, you can see a clear difference in the organization of features that make up the unique pattern of a T-shirt or a sock.

Taking this example further, when folding socks you would be able to differentiate a sock from a shirt based on its shape, as a sock appears as a pocket-like item shaped like a foot with one hole at the top. You would also be able to differentiate a sock from a shirt by looking at the different sizes of these two articles of clothing (evident in Image 4). More specifically, by relying in part on your mental representation of socks as being smaller in comparison to a shirt, you would be able to tell the difference between these two items of clothing.

Now, imagine you do not have the ability to recognize patterns and I asked you to do this same task of folding and sorting laundry. With no prior mental impression or the ability to recognize patterns, you would need to compare every new item of clothing you grab to every other item and start over again each time. It would be like the unfamiliar maze. Folding laundry is bad enough. This would be awful! Without pattern recognition how would we form mental representations of environmental stimuli in the first place? This realization really highlights how crucial this process is in our lives and the extremely significant role it plays in the ways in which we see and interact with the world around us.

Face Recognition as an Example of Pattern Recognition

The same cognitive process is at work when pattern recognition is applied to the important task of identifying familiar faces. Being able to recognize the familiar faces of people we know is crucial for appropriate social interaction (Gobbini & Haxby, 2007), or to a separate a friend from a stranger. Our ability to rapidly and accurately readily access information about individuals we come across tells us how we should communicate with them (Gobbini & Haxby, 2007). Faces are distinctive stimuli in and of themselves (Gobbini & Haxby, 2007). Interestingly, only minor differences in the construction of facial features are all that we need in order to tell people apart from one another (Tsao & Livingstone, 2008). In fact, face recognition is a special type of pattern recognition that responds to and processes familiar facial features—i.e., familiar face stimuli—through the activation of a specific region in our brains called the fusiform face area (FFA) (Kanwisher, McDermott, & Chun, 1997; Schwartz & Krantz, 2019).

Image 5. Each of three of these faces is unique and it is the variation in the composition of facial features (shown by the different shapes of the connected dots on the faces) that make each face special.

As you can see in Image 5, each person has unique physical features that are organized in a distinctive manner and make each person who they are (Schwartz & Krantz, 2019). Each one is the same, in that they all share two eyes, a nose, a mouth, etc. However, this specific composition of features allows us to differentiate one person from another in addition to enabling us to accurately identify someone we know through our pairing of incoming sensory information/stimuli with the information we have already stored in mental representations in our brains from our initial encounter with that individual (Diamond & Carey, 1986). Certain patterns we can recognize through face recognition include the unique facial features such as the distance between an individual’s eyes, the size of their nose, eyes, mouth, and forehead, the shape of these face parts, and the proximity of these parts to one another (Tsao & Livingstone, 2008). And all of this can be done practically instantaneously. Thus, as you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to recognize individuals in our environment without being able to utilize pattern recognition to quickly match the distal stimuli (i.e., an individual’s specific features and the unique organization of said features) with our mental representations formed when we first met that person.

Image 6. This image illustrates the recognition of a familiar face, John Smith, in a crowd of people.

In thinking about what would happen if we were unable to recognize patterns, I thought of people who have experienced and survived traumatic accidents that may have resulted in brain damage, a loss of vision, or damage to their memory. More specifically, I thought of how such accidents can lead to specific conditions like visual agnosia, for example, which refers to the loss of the brain’s ability—in individuals with or affected by this condition—to interpret visual sensations, store knowledge from incoming visual stimuli, and thereby recognize the world around them through incoming visual stimuli (Lawson). As a result of these impairments in the visual recognition systems of people with this condition, these individuals have a difficult time perceiving the world around them as they are unable to sense visual information to form patterns in the same way they used to be able to prior to having this condition, making it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to recognize patterns in new visual stimuli (Lawson). Consequently, given how much we rely on our visual systems to perceive our surroundings specifically through the formation of mental representations based on visual patterns in our environments, people with visual agnosia often struggle to make sense of the world around them. Thinking about how much life and our perception of our world changes when visual pattern recognition is taken away highlights the great importance of patterns and reveals how this seemingly mundane ability is something many people take for granted (Lawson). Mental representations, inferences, and prior knowledge play a very important role in molding our perceptions and views of the world, especially in object recognition as it is our mental representations of certain objects gained through repetition and experience that enable us to fully perceive what we’re observing (Michaels & Carello, 1981). Long story short, patterns play an important role in the mechanisms with which humans sense, interpret, perceive, and understand environmental information, in addition to helping humans avoid information overload, as well as make decisions, gain new knowledge, and ultimately learn (Lawson).

Now that we’ve gone over some of the many benefits of patterns, and more importantly our ability to recognize them, it is important to understand how this cognitive process works and how we actually identify these repetitions in our environments. Pattern recognition is a broad concept referring to the cognitive process by which we recognize events or objects in the world and then label and identify these objects (Schwartz & Krantz, 2019). A good pattern recognition system is fast, ignores variability that is irrelevant to the discrimination task at hand, differentiates among similar items, and is accurate.

Image 7. Mixed U.S. paper currency.

For instance, imagine you are buying something at a store with paper money. Think about how similar United States paper currency is. Now, with that in mind, think about how fast and accurately you would most likely be able to (as citizens and residents of the United States) differentiate between the dollar bills you have in your hand to give the cashier the most appropriate amount of money as soon as they tell you how much you owe. This is an excellent example of how our brain is a good pattern recognition system. Pattern recognition requires the repetition of experience in order to function in addition to the involvement of unconscious inference or judgement to change a sensation to a perception (Hatfield). Unconscious inferences are our subconscious judgements that add detail to a sensation to produce our perception of that sensation and let us understand the world as we know it (Hatfield; McBride & Cutting, 2019; Michaels & Carello, 1981). Unconscious inferences help connect the dots between our prior knowledge and our sensations of environmental stimuli and fill in gaps of missing information from our sensations (Hatfield; Michaels & Carello, 1981). For example, if we were to look at an image of two people sitting down at a dinner table in which we can see only the top half of their bodies because the table is covering up their legs, unconscious inference would guide our conclusion that both individuals do in fact have legs. This inference is driven by our prior experiences during which we’ve observed countless people sitting down at a dinner table that have legs (McBride & Cutting, 2019). Of course, it’s possible that these individuals don’t have legs although it’s statistically much less likely. Therefore, we assume that the people in this photograph have legs that are simply blocked from our view by the table (McBride & Cutting, 2019). Now, think about what would happen if we didn’t have unconscious inference in this scenario. We would probably be pretty confused as to where the rest of these individual’s bodies are and question if these people even have the rest of their bodies that aren’t visible to us in the picture (Hatfield; Michaels & Carello, 1981; McBride & Cutting, 2019). This confusion would most likely take up significant mental energy and space in our brains while we during our attempt to make sense of what we are seeing which is incredibly inefficient.

Who would have thought that patterns, pattern recognition, and unconscious inference would play such important roles in our everyday lives? It is ironic that these complex cognitive processes make easy everyday tasks … well, easy. Understanding these dynamics has certainly given me a new appreciation for these important cognitive processes and no longer take them for granted. The idea of life without pattern recognition or unconscious inference is an alternative reality akin to a horror film.



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