Sunday, November 17, 2013

Patterns & Memory

It could be a "which came first -- the chicken or the egg?" type of problem, but I'm betting on the chicken. 

When I first considered writing this blog about the human experience of time, I questioned whether time was as crucial as I thought. The only other human capability that seemed equally important was our skill at grasping patterns.

The power we have as humans comes from our ability to see patterns. We see patterns everywhere. Discovering and utilizing patterns gives us the control that has allowed us to now dominate the Earth.

Finding a pattern is finding order. We are hardwired to see order, to create order, to manipulate our world based on order -- this is an essential drive in the human psyche, almost as compelling as sex.
...patterns have an underlying mathematical structure; indeed, mathematics can be seen as the search for regularities, and the output of any function is a mathematical pattern. Similarly in the sciences, theories explain and predict regularities in the world.
A scientific law "is a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts...expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present." (Oxford English DictionaryQuoted in this article:
Also read: Humans Are the World's Best Pattern-Recognition Machines 
Once a scientific law is established, it gives us the ability to build, create and predict based on those laws -- as we have now, in effect, cracked the code of nature by discovering an underlying pattern.
Why Order Is So Important: Comprehending order gives us comfort, predictability,  control, safety and removes uncertainty -- all of which allows us to have a better chance at survival.
I believe that this compulsion to find patterns is separate from our experience of time and the way that our brains put memories together. 

So Which Came First?

I believe the human sense of time -- hundreds of thousands of years before civilization began -- gave us the edge as a species and came first. Because without an ability to recall the past, we would not have the data necessary to discern a pattern. 

Before we could perceive patterns we had to have had a clear memory and a detailed understanding of what we had seen and experienced so we could connect the dots. 

Yet the combination of the two: a sophisticated understanding of time combined with a sophisticated perception of patterns, gave us a tremendous advantage.

The beauty and power of patterns is that they can apply to a variety of very different phenomena. Take the spiral: this basic design in nature can be the structure of a shell, a storm or a galaxy.

A spiral in a fossil shell. (

A spiral in the aloe plant. (

A spiral in a low pressure system when seen from a satellite. (
Massive spirals: colliding galaxies. (NASA)
Spirals can be understood mathematically as in this example by Theodorus of Cyrene, a Greek mathematician in the 5th Century BCE. Fundamental aspects of the spiral will apply to a sea shell, a plant, a storm or a galaxy and even similar molecular stuctures such as the DNA helix even though they are made up of quite different materials and vary considerably in size. (
And what does this have to do with time? 
Finding a pattern means that we connect things we have seen in the past to things in the present which we can then project into the future. 
My point is that human memory came first but it was combined with a separate remarkable ability to discover patterns. This led to agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, science, technology and civilization.

As our civilization progresses we have become increasingly sophisticated at finding patterns and building on what we have established. The discovery and development of fractal geometry was only possible with computers, for example. 

A natural fractal is displayed in the veins of this plant. It was not until computers could do the complex calculations that a mathematical pattern was discovered in fractal structures. (
In the following, wonderful example, the famous mathematical relationship discovered by Pythagoras 2500 years ago (in a right angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides) is used as the basis for an increasingly complex fractal design ending with a lifelike tree. This illustrates how we often build on our existing patterns to make increasingly sophisticated patterns.


There often is no use for a pattern when it is first discovered. This was true for fractals. Yet as time goes on, people often see how a new pattern applies to various real world problems. In one of the first practical applications, the fractal antennae is much smaller, lighter and more sensitive than previous small antennas and quite useful for cell phones. I believe we have only begun to see the ways that fractals can be used in the real world.
Design for a fractal antennae. (
The impulse to see patterns is so strong we often find them when there is none -- such as the face on the surface of Mars. Since a large part of our brains is devoted to face recognition, it was hard to *not* see a face when the lo-res image had facial characteristics. It turned out, of course, to be a geological feature on Mars, a mesa. Yet millions of people believed it was evidence of life on Mars while logically it was almost certain that it was simply a surface feature on the planet. 

The low resolution photo on the left appeared to show a face on the surface of Mars, but as the photographic resolution increased (middle photo & higher still on the right) the facial characteristics disappeared. (NASA)
When I watch the very popular detective shows on TV, shows that seem to dominate programming -- such as Criminal Minds, Elementary, Castle, The Mentalist, Person of Interest, Law And Order, CSI, NCIS, Hawaii 5-O, Cold Case, Numb3rs, Bones, Without a Trace plus numerous made for TV movies and documentary type shows like NBC's DateLine -- the bulk of the story is about finding the pattern that leads to the killer. It appears that even in our leisure moments, we are looking for patterns and enjoy the game of finding them.

Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco -- a popular TV police drama. In the last 60 years there have been about 650 crime dramas on TV around the world. Many ran for a number of years. (

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