Patterns in the Sand

Human beings are pattern processors, not data processors.  This has enormous implications for how we perceive and incorporate information – and of course, how we perceive and incorporate information has a huge impact on how we make decisions.

But what does it really mean to say that we are pattern processors?  Among other things, it means that we see patterns everywhere, even where there are none – but so what?

In I Am Right, You Are Wrong – From Rock Logic to Water Logic, Edward de Bono uses a metaphor for perception that I initially found to be awfully esoteric, but now I find it to be a very useful concept.  It has to do with marbles, funnels, and sand.

Imagine a room with a smooth layer of sand several inches thick covering the floor.  Now imagine that suspended above that sand is a single layer of irregularly shaped funnels, all with the narrow spout facing downward.  The funnels completely cover the area of the room; there are no gaps.  They are different sizes and shapes, and most are asymmetrical, with larger catchment areas on one side of their spouts than on the other.

Now suppose you have many, many holes in the ceiling of this room, such that you can drop marbles through these holes in a wide variety of areal patterns.  What happens when you choose a pattern and drop a bunch of marbles?  Each marble will fall into the catchment area of one funnel or another, will roll down the slope of the funnel and out through the spout, and will drop onto the sand, making an imprint at that spot.  Some funnels may not catch any marbles; some may catch more than one.

How well will the pattern of impressions in the sand reflect the actual areal pattern of the marbles as they were dropped from the ceiling?  It depends on a number of factors, including how close each marble was to the spout when it hit its funnel, how large the catchment areas of the funnels are, how many funnels caught more than one marble, etc.  The pattern in the sand will definitely be a distortion of the original pattern of marbles.

If you change the pattern of the marbles being dropped, to what degree will that change be reflected in the pattern left in the sand?  Again, it depends on several things, including how large the catchment areas are for the funnels, and how many of the marbles moved far enough away from their original locations to be caught by a different funnel.  Note that in some cases, a small difference in marble location may be enough to make it land in a different funnel, and in others, a marble dropped from a very different location might still be caught by the same funnel and end up leaving the same mark in the sand.

This is how our brains work (more broadly, this is generally how all self-organizing complex systems work, of which your brain is one).  The areal pattern of the marbles as they are dropped from the ceiling is reality; the funnels are the patterning system inherent in our brains; and the impressions left in the sand are our perception of reality.  Our perceptions are not just distorted by our biases and experiences – they are distorted by how our brains work.

Clear forest in glasses on the background of blurred forest

The implications for decision making are enormous.  Two people with different patterning systems (i.e., a different array of funnels) will not just disagree on issues, they will actually perceive the same reality differently.  Even with a single person, a small change in reality might be perceived to be very different (if that small change causes marbles to cross over into new catchment areas), while a much larger change in reality might go unnoticed (if almost no marbles cross into new catchment areas).

Why should our brains have evolved to work this way?  Probably because a system like this greatly reduces the number of different patterns actually perceived.  After all, you can only have impressions in the sand below the spouts of the funnels.  The number of possible combinations of impressions in the sand (perceptions) is orders of magnitude smaller than the number of possible areal patterns of marbles as they drop from the ceiling (reality).  This makes for a much more manageable number of scenarios to keep in your head when trying to make sense of your surroundings.  When you’re hunting and gathering on the Serengeti, being able to quickly recognize the situation approximately (I’ve seen this – or something close to it – before!) is a much more valuable skill than being able to characterize the situation exactly if doing so takes precious seconds and requires you to consider the possible implications of every difference between “this time” and “last time.”

But most of us don’t live on the Serengeti anymore.  The problems we face are more complex and subtle than simply avoiding being eaten (note that I didn’t say our problems are more important, just more complex and subtle).  Having a clear picture of reality is extremely helpful, even if it takes a bit longer to pull it together.

One quick digression.  There are people who are primarily “data processors” rather than “pattern processors”: the autistic.  For some reason, they don’t seem to have the same “funnel system” the rest of us have that reduces the variety of patterns to a manageable number.  I suspect this is why most autistic people crave routine and often feel overwhelmed by human contact.  Imagine how exhausting it would be if you didn’t immediately recognize (approximately) what was going on, but rather had to think it through each and every time?  Imagine if even minor differences in your surroundings left you trying to cope with a “new” situation?

However, that lack of a funnel system can be an advantage.  Auticon, a German IT consultancy, specifically hires autistic people because their attention to detail, their comfort with routine, and their obsessive-compulsive behavior makes them excellent software engineers and beta-testers.  In many ways, the autistic see the world as it really is – a dynamic and unpredictable cacophony of endless signals and noise – rather than living life through the comfort of patterning filters, as the rest of us do.

But let’s get back to how most of us think.  How do we overcome the natural tendencies of our own brains to over-simplify and over-categorize, even in complex situations?  There are a number of approaches, of which I will mention three:

  • Use diversity. It’s not just a cliché.  Different people with different backgrounds and different genetic makeups will perceive the world differently.  Listen to them.  Don’t assume that because their interpretation of a situation is different from yours, they must be mistaken.
  • Dave Snowden (about whom I wrote in my last blog piece) uses narratives to gather information and then categorizes them along abstract parameters. We transfer information better in narrative form, and our brains process abstract concepts differently from concrete ones.  The patterning (funnel system) doesn’t seem to distort things so much.
  • De Bono recommends a number of exercises to promote creative thinking and to cut across the natural categorization “buckets” we instinctively apply to the world. His “Six Hats” approach is one of the better known ones – if you’re unfamiliar with it, you should google it.

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  The key take-away is that creative thinking in complex situations rarely comes naturally.  We tend to lump situations into familiar buckets, regardless of whether those buckets are really appropriate – and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  This isn’t just a bias or a flawed-logic trap, this is how we perceive the world.

Using a structured approach and some of the above methods to gain clarity about the true reality of the situation is an important early step toward finding and implementing creative, sustainable, high-value strategies.

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