Monday, November 24, 2003

Patterns and sense-making 

It’s just over 22 years since our first child was born. It was a strangely peaceful experience – a short and relatively relaxed drive to the maternity hospital on a warm summer evening, surprisingly quiet in the hospital as by chance there were few other mothers in labour there that evening, a short labour and our first son was born at 9.15pm. He seemed to catch the peace that was present then. I can still see quite clearly the look that was in his eyes as he lay in his mother’s arms, taking in his new surroundings. I was astonished at the awareness in those eyes as, for the first time, they held images of his new world. Needless to say, that peace didn’t last, but I hold that look in his eyes in my memory.

It was several years later that I was able to fit that look into the jigsaw of human perception and awareness. In the womb, he was already getting attuned to existence as a set of repeated patterns – his mother’s heartbeat; periods of activity interspersed with periods of quite; who knows what else an unborn child experiences? But rhythm and pattern are fundamental to his, and our, existence.

Then, at birth, a whole new set of patterns present themselves. Dancing patterns of many-coloured lights on his retina where previously he had known only one dimly variable shade of red; a cacophony of harsh, violent noise in his ears where before there had been only the steady beat of his mother’s heart and , muffled and distant, some other deeper, quieter sounds; an environment that suddenly and inexplicably changes form, the physical boundaries of his universe sometimes tightly constrained, sometimes vanished totally; sensations of touch all over his body. And all of these senses bursting in on his world, all at once. Is it any wonder a new-born baby cries? And yet, here he was, laying peacefully, waking to awareness of his new world.

Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months, some of these patterns of sound, light, touch and taste would have begun to repeat and the fact of that repetition would itself register in patterns forming in the cells of in his brain. Associations would begin to be made – sucking and pleasure and the visual pattern of his mother’s face as he lay at the breast and the tones of her voice and the smell of her skin. And, slowly, his world would begin to have form; out of the chaos of light and sound and smell and touch into which he had been born, his own mind began to sort all these patterns into some kind of order, and did so by generating it’s own internal patterns.

So began the process of sense-making; and throughout life and indeed throughout human history, pattern making sits at the very heart of the sense-making process. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to recognise the behaviour patterns of their prey; agriculture depends on knowledge of seasonal cycles; early astronomers knew the power and influence that accrued from knowledge of the patterns of motion of the heavenly bodies. Modern science is perhaps the very pinnacle, the Magnum Opus, of pattern making, describing the very stuff of the universe in that most elegant of pattern-languages, mathematics.

Thus it is that human beings have become pattern-making machines. We can’t help it. Our ancestors lived by patterns; our brains are wired into patterns and create more patterns; it’s the only way we have to make sense of the chaos and complexity of the world that surrounds us. And it works. Mostly.

The trouble is, our brains have been wired by generation upon generation of pattern-making in such a way that it becomes difficult to distinguish the pattern from the experience that gave rise to the pattern. At one time, it was experience that was real, the pattern that was still shaky and uncertain, but every experience that matched the pattern strengthened and reinforced it and made the pattern ever more real. Every time the hunter saw a certain pattern of muscular tension; saw the neck stiffen, the head raise, the nostrils twitch; he knew his presence had been sensed and the flight of his prey would soon follow.

Before long, it is the pattern that becomes reality, and experience is called into question. The experience that runs counter to the pattern is dismissed as aberrant, atypical, a measurement anomaly. The pattern is true; it is the mismatched experience that is false. (If you doubt this, read Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" - detailed synopsis here).

It is undeniable that patterns have served humanity well. Patterns are useful inasmuch as they enable us to think about a complex and chaotic world in simple terms, and to plan and make predictions about it. But they’re not the truth. We can forget sometimes that patterns are a tool that we can choose to use to serve us, and instead we become the tool that serves the pattern.

Racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance – these are all cases of pattern making gone awry. These though are the obvious ones, easy to spot for the most part – at least by those not directly involved. But if our entire perception of the world and everything in it – ourselves and everyone around us – is based on patterns, how do we distinguish pattern from experience; how do we know whether we are using the pattern or the pattern is using us?

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