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In recent years, much progress has been made analyzing human perception and the functioning of the brain in terms of the use of biochemical energy to identify and process order through pattern recognition. We may think of order as the underlying rules or laws that make things what they are, and patterns as individual instances of matter and energy shaped by order – the same order which allows us to recognize the similarity in different objects with similar or identical patterns, as we noted in previous chapters. Order and energy are the very essence of the brain's functioning. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, considering that the brain represents the supreme accomplishment of the complex order of the most advanced form of genetic code, the human genome.

Recent research on the phenomenon of brain activity and pattern recognition has occurred on two fronts: the simulation of brain-thinking by computer circuits and software known as neural networks, and the analysis of perception itself as pattern-processing.

A Computer That Works Like A Brain

In the current age of technology, innovative computer scientists are exploring how to make a computer work as much like the human brain as possible. They are creating circuits which use electric energy and which physically resemble the neurons (nerve cells) and ganglia (connecting fibers, much like wires) in the human brain. These circuits are called neural networks. And they are just beginning to simulate some of the marvelous feats of the brain.

For example, an average human can recognize another person's face through pattern recognition in less than a second, something even the fastest, vastest computer cannot handle, even though that same computer can do most mathematical calculations very much faster than any human. It is said that a pigeon can be trained to tell the difference between photographs which have a person in them from photographs which do not, with an accuracy and speed that again even the best computers cannot yet equal.

Neural Patterns In The Brain

The brain works by forming patterns – not little tiny pictures of houses and people, of course, but patterns of neurons linked by ganglia. The neural pattern that allows you to recognize a house really does exist, physically and biochemically, in your brain. No one can see it as such, and no one knows for certain if it exists in a specific place or if it is a function of an area of the brain. But it is possible to electrically stimulate certain spots in the brain and evoke the recollection of a vast pattern of memory-experiences.

Think how incredibly powerful the human-pattern recognition ability is. Every word, every object in the world that we can identify, we identify because we recognize it as a pattern that we have seen, heard or otherwise learned before. And we are constantly learning new patterns by associating or combining old patterns.

The infant in its dim developing consciousness learns patterns long before words. Individual sensory stimuli such as pleasure, sound and touch become associated in the infant's brain, and form a pattern through repeated stimulation and association. Thus the child learns the pattern of its mother's face and voice as different from others'. The child learns to associate the feel and smell of the mother's breast with nourishment, with the end of pain and the satisfaction of hunger, with being held and feeling secure.

Some of the most powerful patterns in our adult brains are patterns of feelings and sensations going all the way back to infancy, perhaps even to prenatal experiences in the womb. These often-unconscious patterns can have great influence on our lives. As we age, the order of our internal patterns becomes extremely complex, made up of sub-patterns, and we are constantly learning and forming more of them all our lives.

Move from the child's earliest sensations to the advanced scientist scanning the heavens with a radio-telescope for signs of intelligent life. What is the scientist searching for? (What is every scientist searching for?) A pattern. A pattern like three dots, three dashes, three dots (Morse Code for SOS) or a sequence like 3.1415962...(pi) that will give him a clue that there is intelligent life, something like another brain, somewhere out in the universe.

How The Brain Works

Although signals move more slowly in the brain than in computers, the brain is able to recognize patterns much faster than computers because its billions of neurons can all work on the problem virtually simultaneously. In what has been described as a "town meeting," the billions of neurons "vote" on what the new pattern is, matching a pattern in memory with the pattern of new sensory input. This somewhat "fuzzy" process allows the brain to identify different examples of a common pattern—to see a new tree as similar to other trees previously observed, for example.

As the brain's complex network functions, it uses a great deal of energy. Although it weighs only about 2 percent of the total weight of the human body, it consumes up to 20 percent of the body's energy. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, thought erroneously that the energy of the brain and nervous system was generated externally. Freud believed that "impulses and wishes not released in action were repressed, often surfacing to consciousness in dreams. High levels of energy, bottled up like steam in a railway engine, were unpleasurable to the conscious brain, which was strongly inclined to the pleasurable principle of discharge...." Contrary to Freud's view of the brain as a victim of forces from outside the body or from instinctual drives such as hunger or aggression, the brain calls its own shots. As Campbell says, "The brain, far from just reacting to gusts of energy bombarding it from the instincts or the outside world, maintains its own information system in a more or less stable balance, and to a large extent drives itself. Normally, at any one time more neurons are switched off in the brain than are switched on, so there is no need for safety valves to blow off superfluous heads of steam. The brain does not passively accept what is given. It selects and structures the messages it needs, shutting down unwanted circuits. As many as 80 percent of the neurons in the human brain may act to suppress activity rather than to excite it."

A Pattern-Recognition Organ

The brain is an incredibly complex, versatile pattern-recognition organ. It does not think in neat linear fashion, as we might think formal logic would require. Virtually everything the brain does is some form of pattern recognition and pattern processing. And why not? The brain is in fact made of neural networks, brain cells linked together in an almost infinitely varied number of possibilities – a variety as infinite, say, as the infinite variety of experiences in human life.

The more a cluster of brain cells is stimulated, the more likely it is to work in conjunction with related cells. In this manner simple patterns resulting from sensory stimuli are linked by the brain into ever-more advanced patterns of patterns, into concepts which may become increasingly abstract over time. If you focus your concentration, you could write or talk for hours about what an abstract concept such as love or justice, drawing on the extensive patterns filed away in your brain.

Although some patterns in nature seem to be observable by virtually everyone, such as the association of thunder, lightning and rain, there are other patterns which are much more ambiguous. Astrology, for example, believes that patterns of celestial bodies determine or influence the behavior or fates of people. Elevators to one person may just be a convenient form of vertical transportation, and to another a cause of sheer terror because of some traumatic pattern hidden in the subconscious. Mental patterns are highly individualistic. Without doubt no two people on earth have the same sets of mental patterns.

Patterns And Thinking

Howard Margolis has elaborated on the brain's pattern-processing functions in his book Patterns, Thinking and Cognition: A Theory of Judgment. Margolis believes that the brain's pattern-recognition abilities are themselves the product of evolution.

We can imagine prehistoric man shuffling through the brush when he catches a quick glimmer of something moving in the tall grass not far away. With lightning speed his mind recognizes the pattern of movement in the brush as being possibly an animal, and when he sees two feline ears he recognizes that as the pattern of a tiger head, and instantly his body is poised for flight or fight. This is how prehistoric man survived and evolved.

Now let us imagine a logical approach. He sees the brush move and he thinks, "Hmmm... Some brush movement is associated with animal movement. Some feline ears belong to man-eating tigers. Therefore, the movement in the brush ahead may mean there is a man-eating tiger ahead. I am a man. Therefore I might be eaten by this tiger. But perhaps it is only a harmless ..." and at this point he becomes tiger lunch.

Margolis reveals many illusions that provide strong evidence that the mind is not "logical" but really operates on pattern recognition at all times.

The Brain Is Not Logical

One example he gives involves shuffling a pack of cards and laying three of them face down on a table. Then consider these two propositions:

A. "At least two of the three cards are the same suit."

B. "All three cards are different suits."

Which of these claims is more probably true? Nearly everyone says "B", when in fact, "A" is more likely to occur than B by a ratio of about 3 to 2. Very few people also see, unless given help, that A and B are logically converse. That is, if A is false, B must be true, and if B is false, A must be true. But if our minds were really logical, all of this would be ridiculously self-evident.

Patterns Guide Animal Movement

In all higher animals including man, Margolis notes, the brain seems to include an elaborate model or pattern representing the animal's own body. "A neural loop provides that in addition to the signals to the muscles setting in motion a pattern of response (efferent signals), there are feedbacks (afferent signals) which inform the brain of what is actually happening. This afferent/efferent setup makes no sense unless there is some internal pattern that allows the creature to use the feedback signals to adjust its performance by comparing the pattern of actual movement (from the feedback loop) to the intended pattern of movement. It seems reasonable to suppose that the pattern a creature recognizes – adjusts to – by sensing its own movements is the same pattern the creature uses to organize its movements.

"A similar sort of dynamic internal patterning seems required to allow an animal running along a trail to avoid stumbling over irregularities in the terrain, logs that have fallen across the trail, and so on. For as you can notice for yourself if you walk through the woods, by the time a creature's feet reach the points where it might stumble, its eyes are ordinarily focused on things well down the trail. You do not watch your feet, but they know where to go. For a human, it would take refined experiments to be sure that the feet are not being watched (subliminally) through peripheral vision. But four-footed animals could hardly be doing that.

"Finally, a higher vertebrate's memory of its surroundings (its territory, neighborhood, and so on) must provide some internal representation that keeps track of the location of important temporary features of the scene. A zebra which has caught sight of a lion does not forget where the lion is when it stops watching the lion for a moment. The lion does not forget where the zebra is."

The Brain's Infinite Pattern Capacity

To absorb the incredible amount of information an animal must store in its brain in terms of territory-patterns and terrain-patterns, the brain has the potential for billions upon billions of connections of ganglia and neurons – it's another one of those numbers greater than all the letters in all the books in all the libraries of the world. Only something this complex could possibly provide an internal map of portions of the external world. The correspondence between the complexity of the external world and our mind's ability to map it through patterns is extremely interesting. Perhaps you have had the experience of mentally driving down a very familiar street and noticing the pattern of every building on the street in your mind’s eye. The ability of birds to migrate thousands of miles each year without getting lost may be due in part to mental maps that are hard-wired in their brains.

Non-Linear Logic

Margolis believes that our minds do not function on the basis of logic at all, but function instead by pattern processing, what he calls p-cognition. He believes the so-called linear aspect of logic is really a series of little pattern-processing steps that have been learned over time.

I believe instead that some brain activity appears to be logical because a certain kind of pattern processing is logical. This is apparent in a type of symbolic logic known as Venn diagrams. Here is an illustration, based on perhaps the most famous example of logic of all times, the Socrates syllogism:

The statement "All men are mortal" would be represented by two circles, a smaller one representing "men" and a larger one representing "mortal things." The "men" circle would be entirely enclosed within the "mortal things" circle. Thus "all men" would also be "mortal things."

Then the statement "Socrates is a man" would be a small point representing Socrates inside the "men" circle. And the logical conclusion, "Therefore Socrates is mortal" would be obvious since the Socrates-point would be inside the "mortal things" circle as well. It is not difficult to imagine that neurons could process patterns in a similar manner.

In formal logic, this kind of three-statement reasoning is called a syllogism. The statement "All men are mortal" is the major premise. The statement "Socrates is a man" is the minor premise. And the statement "Socrates is mortal" is the conclusion. When I studied this in college, I thought to myself, "This is too easy. Any fool can reach the conclusion."

Perhaps I and others have felt that way because pattern-processing is more like the Venn diagrams and happens so quickly that the formal syllogism is like learning some ancient dance form, a ritual with no utility.

We will continue our study of order in the brain, and of the significance of patterns, as we look at the tremendous importance of patterns in psychology in the next chapter.

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