Pattern Recognition and the Seduction of Simplicity

Ukrane Cartoon 2

In one of the early episodes of Cosmos – which is as far as I’ve gotten – Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about how we humans have evolved to be good at recognizing  patterns. He may have even said that pattern recognition is something that all animals are good at. Either way he is, of course, right. The better an animal is able to recognize patterns, the more likely their survival. After all, any animal that is able to intuit the pattern of her world – The best grass is by the wide spot in the river, or The lions like to sleep during the day. – will flourish at the expense of another animal just wandering around at random.

We – Home sapien – are so good at pattern recognition that we often see patterns when there really isn’t one. From around the time Homo erectus stood up, in the neighborhood of one and half million years ago, our ancestors have probably been seeing patterns in the stars. By the time we actually became Homo sapiens and started migrating out of Africa – going North toward the bright star that is always the same direction – we had already, probably, started naming those patterns.

Today, I – and most of us – see bigots and racists every time we see somebody waving a Confederate Battle Flag. Every time Western Europe moves east, the Russians see Nazis. But not all patterns are really there and most patterns are only there some of the time. A pattern, by definition, is not one hundred percent. I think that is easy to forget, to think the pattern is a simple answer. That simplicity is the handmaiden of certainty and Certainty makes us so comfortable.

As an aside, somebody – I think it was Gail Cousins – posted a quote from Lupita Nyong’o on the seduction of inadequacy. I love that term, I love the depth and subtlety. Seduction, so gentle a word used here and still, so insistent, like an undertow. Most of us feel that undertow and some of us get swept away by it.

I – all of us, I think – want to be right, we want to be certain and to be certain, requires answers. Years ago, maybe in the late 70s, I was at a plant show and saw a striking plant labeled Beaucarnea Species, I asked the guy selling the plant if he knew the species name and his eyes said, If I knew the name, I would have put in on the label. But his mouth said, Uh….Beaucarnea stricta? I bought the Beaucarnea and happily labeled it Beaucarnea stricta. End aside.    


2 thoughts on “Pattern Recognition and the Seduction of Simplicity

  1. Speaking of patterns: The clouds in the cartoon wonderfully deplict the situation in Ukraine. There is a little cloud quivering between jaws formed out of two much larger clouds. As NATO and the Russian Empire struggle to redefine themselves in the post, post cold war era, little Ukraine looks to be a tasty morsel.

    …or perhaps I’m simplifying;)


    I think you are right that certainty makes us uncomfortable. Yet, why do we strive so to achieve certainty?

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