Patterns, intelligence and the present

In response to a post over at Cafe Philos, I commented that:

“I think one of the crucial parts of intelligence is the ability to make links and detect patterns – which is vital for experiencing the present as well as predicting the future .”

Paul responded:

“I’m very curious about what you said there. Would you elaborate please on how making links and detecting patterns is vital for experiencing the present?”

And as often happens when someone asks you to elaborate on something you’ve said, I was to begin with stumped to know how to explain what I meant, and took a while to work my way through to it. But here, Paul, is my answer:

Perhaps the best place to start is a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I found it a fascinating book. One of the key points it makes is that the way we perceive the world around us, normally, is not by seeing shapes and lines, but immediately interpreting those shapes and lines as things. Which isn’t very useful if you want to learn to draw… so the book encourages us to learn to look without interpreting. A fascinating and challenging exercise, that shows how fundamental making connections and interpretations is to our perception of reality. (A similar effect comes from trying to do a mindfulness meditation, where we just notice sensations without attaching any interpretation to them.)

If you want to draw accurately, you need to focus on the detail of what you are actually seeing, not what you think you see. But mostly we don’t have the time or the need to focus on detail – we need to get a quick gist of the forest. I look out of the window now and I see a hillside covered in houses. If I focus, I can see the red and black and green colours that make up those houses – the shadows and perspectives that make me see them as on a hill. And would help me draw them. But mostly all I need is to know, ah, there are houses on that hill.

So as we watch people and things I feel we unconsciously look out for patterns – something as simple as the cadence of someone’s speech, or as complex as a personality trait. Visual patterns – verbal patterns. We can’t process the details individually, so we have to find some way ofrelating to them as a pattern. Like a computer’s zip utility – that looks for repeated sequences of characters that can be captured more simply. Or, as a former music teacher used to say, “don’t listen to the notes, listen to the music”.

But that quote also brings out the fact that what we look for is more than a mechanical pattern. The patterns we find often have a deeper meaning than the details. Emergent properties. We not only look for patterns in the present, but with things in our memories… so I see a poorly built house and remember what it is like to be in a house like that, and a little bit of that remembered discomfort sneaks into my perception.

Let me give you an example to show how this shapes your present. I imagine there’s a cup of coffee (half empty, half full or steaming hot and ready to drink;)) somewhere near your computer right now. Your perception of that cup of coffee is shaped by your associations with coffee, your memory of how long ago you made it, where you got the cup from, the colour and texture…. all these things brought together shape your experience of that cup. If you forgot those associations, or were someone else who had different associations, it would be a different experience.

It’s like every single thing that we experience is the centre of a kaleidoscope of associations. It’s true of simple objects – but even more so of people. People are even more resonant with links and memories – memories we have of those people themselves and of others that were similar in some way.

By contrast, imagine being an amnesiac, or someone who couldn’t make associations. You’d be experiencing the world in black and white, compared to our normal technicolour! Indeed some descriptions of autism I have come across suggest it is this inability to reduce detail to comprehensible pattern that makes the world so difficult for an autistic person to process.

For me that complexity is an intrinsic part of our perception of the present, though so instinctive that we normally don’t notice.

To go beyond that, then, to link it to intelligence… Firstly, think of a standard IQ test – so many of the tests, whether verbal, numerical or patterns, are about detecting patterns and then applying that pattern. To decide what is the next number or pattern in the sequence, or the word that is to x as y is to z, we must find the pattern that we have been given. Once we have found that, the next step is easy.

I also feel that this sort of pattern-making is crucial for problem-solving. To apply what has been learnt in one situation to another is often the best way to make a breakthrough.

Making links is also vital for creativity – particularly when they’re unlikely links. Metaphor. Imagery. Association.

I suppose what I come down to is that the more intelligent we are, the more patterns we perceive, and the richer our perceptual world becomes. I’m not necessarily talking about a cultivated, educated intelligence here – education can often limit us to seeing a certain set of patterns, where a spontaneous intelligence can see a wider range. But the ability to interpret, see patterns, and make links, is for me a vital part of our connection with the world and of our existence as intelligent beings.

Does that answer your question, Paul?

(the beautiful photo is by James P Blair and is included in National Geographic’s gallery Patterns in Nature)


5 responses to “Patterns, intelligence and the present

  1. “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” is a fantastic book! Funny: I’d just been thinking about it recently and wanting to get a copy of my own!

  2. I’m still planning on responding to this. The past few days have been kind of hectic. I do agree with much of what you’ve said though.

  3. A very good comment and explanation. Linking your experiences and connecting them into a pattern is a mark of intelligence.

  4. I found your article here courtesy of a WordPress auto-generated ‘possibly related articles’ at the end of a post of mine. Thank you WordPress!

    A great post and amazingly similar to the one I penned. I agree with you whole heartedly, the more sensitive the instrumentation the more subtle the patterns that can be detected. Be it mechanical or biological instrumentation. The more patterns we observe, the richer our experience.

    I have been able to see patterns in things that others don’t seem to notice for many years. It’s taken me a long time to learn to trust my own unique way of seeing things.

    With a family history of genius and madness, the fear is ever present that the patterns I observe aren’t there except in my imaginings. Time and experience has taught me to trust my Vision.

  5. It would have been polite of me to point you to my article in case you’re interested. Sorry 😉

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