Humans as pattern seeking devices

So much of the human experience can be explained by one simple fact: the human mind is basically a pattern-seeking device — and a very good one.

We like to think of our minds as computers, but we operate on a completely different paradigm. The utility of a conscious mind — which is very costly in terms of the energy consumed by the wetware required to support it — is that it can allow us to adapt in real time to changing environmental conditions. For most life on Earth, the main response to changing environments involves centuries of slow evolutionary change, because most behavior is “hard-wired” into brains and nervous systems. But evolution stumbled on a new trick with a few animals, and perfected it with one particular family of higher apes that eventually became us. That trick is, of course, what we call intelligence.

Intelligence is what enables creatures to modify and add to the pre-programmed behaviors — to basically adapt on the fly, at “runtime”, as computer programmers say. This adaptation leads to learning new behaviors and teaching them to progeny. This enables the ability to pass on learned behaviors much more efficiently than by haphazard heredity: by teaching the next generation directly. The accumulation of these learned behaviors in a group of animals is what we refer to as culture.

But what exactly is intelligence? I will answer that in one simple sentence. Just kidding. Humans have been trying to define intelligence since the concept existed, and entire books barely scratch the surface. But have you ever taken an I.Q. test? I’ve taken many, and I have noticed something very interesting about them. Most of the questions and tasks on these tests revolve around some form of pattern-recognition. Finding similarities and differences between images. Detecting repeating patterns in a series of numbers. The infamous “a is to b as x is to y” problem. And so forth.

We’re not natural mathematicians. It’s no coincidence that a computer can find thousands of prime numbers or calculate pi to thousands of decimal places faster than a typical human can add two five-digit numbers together in his head. And yet a toddler can recognize a face or learn a song much better and more efficiently than any computer. Math doesn’t come easy to us, but skills that help us to survive certainly do. And one of the chief skills is recognizing patterns.

Patterns are all around us. We learned thousands of years ago to decipher most of nature’s regular patterns. The passing seasons. The migration patterns of our prey. The progression of regular weather patterns. The movement of the heavenly bodies. The rhythms of life.

As we are and were social creatures, we also learned to read the patterns in the behavior of others of our kin and tribes. We became experts at putting ourselves inside the heads of others and predicting what they might do next, based on an understanding of past patterns of behavior. Scientists call this ability “theory of mind” and very few animals are known to possess it, and none to the extent of humans.

It was our ability to recognize and predict the patterns of both raw nature, and of our fellow creatures, that gave us an evolutionary edge.

And as we grew more adept at these skills, we naturally began to combine the two, so that nature become personified. If the weather was bad, it must be angry at us. If the weather was kind, it must be pleased with us. We looked for patterns to predict how to keep the weather appeased.

To help us remember these newly-found patterns, we told stories about them. Stories are another feature of the human mind. We retain information better as stories that connect data to our world, rather than as pure data.

I believe that it was these tendencies of our ancient ancestors that started us down the path to religion. Why? Because as good as we are at detecting patterns, in a sense we are actually too good at it! Our pattern-seeking minds are so adept at finding them that they tend to see them where they don’t really exist.

This is why we see a man in the moon and all manner of creatures dancing across the night sky amid the Zodiac. It’s why we see the face of the Virgin Mary in reflections and that of Jesus on toast.

(There is actually another evolutionary trick that also contributed to the development of religion: our agency detection system.)

So I maintain that it is our pattern recognition device run amok that is very closely associated with religious practice. And because we still possess it, it continues to vex those who would seek to get beyond superstitions, grand conspiracy theories, and supernatural beliefs.

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