The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.

However, I soon gave up on the idea of an entire post about the marvels of the human brain because I realized I was too lazy to research the subject again. I’m loathe to make generalized statements where actual facts are needed, and though I’ve read quite a lot about the workings of the human brain, I would have to go back and do the same research again because of this problem of how our minds don’t make bit-perfect recordings of incoming stimuli.

Even so, I remain fascinated by the subject. For instance, Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature selects for me individuals from two primary audiences: Wichita Falls High School acquaintances and people associated with The Nervous Breakdown. Usually I don’t actually know these suggested folks, because I only lived in Wichita Falls for a couple of years and because the TNB universe extends well beyond my core group of friends here. In almost every case, however, I can look at the 96-pixel-wide image and guess to which of the two groups the individual belongs. The clues at my disposal are the names of the individuals, the context and style of the photography, and maybe clothing choice and hairstyle. I can barely make out any actual detail in an image so small, and yet still I am able to make a ridiculously well-informed assumption about the person’s connection to me.

Pattern recognition comes to humans so easily that we often take it for granted. But anyone who writes software for a living can grasp the complexity of teaching a machine even the simplest task. A computer can’t do anything unless you tell it exactly what you want and how to do it. We have made strides in certain areas, like software that can modify and optimize its own code, and other programs that “learn” by observing trends in user input data, but we’re still pretty far away from creating a machine that can think like a human brain.

Even so, the brain’s weaknesses are unfortunate considering the amount of processing power available to it. For instance, because we’re so good at identifying patterns, we often see patterns where they don’t exist. Like constellations, for example–even a child could draw a better bull than the stars associated with Taurus. The brain can also be intentionally fooled into seeing patterns, which can be demonstrated by using the constellations again and their associated astrological signs. Read the typical newspaper horoscope and you’ll find the sort of generalized life experiences with which almost anyone can vaguely identify. And don’t get me started on how inaccurate our memories can be. If you’ve ever been locked in an argument with your spouse over what she just said five minutes ago, you know what I’m talking about. And further imperfections arise over time as we allow emotions to color our recollections of past life experiences.

Recently I considered compiling a list of everyday behaviors of other people that I find annoying, but most of them had to do with driving and that’s not very original. Still, it’s interesting to wonder why people behave in certain ways that have nothing to do with the logic of the situation. One of my favorites is when people drift into a turn lane and then absently activate their blinker, completely forgetting that a signal is meant to convey intent. What these folks are doing is essentially the same as punching someone in the face and then angrily notifying the offender that if he doesn’t stop insulting your mother, you’re going to hit him. Another favorite is when a driver on a very wide residential road approaches a stop sign and feels compelled to right-justify her vehicle when she plans to turn left. Why doesn’t the driver, when there is plenty of room for it, imagine a left turn lane? Thereby allowing someone behind her to freely turn right?

Decoding repetitive human behavior can be interesting to the layperson, but provides little direct benefit. It’s not as if I can approach every driver on the road and have this conversation with them. And even if I could, maybe that person wouldn’t bother to stop the illogical behavior. Maybe that person is in fact programmed to be illogical. Maybe the reason human brains ignore information easily available to them is because they aren’t making decisions at all. Maybe the universe is completely deterministic and nothing is left to chance or probability. Or perhaps everyone around you is a bit player in a computer simulation in which you’re the main character.

In September, as many of you already know, I published a novel called Thomas World. The primary question of this story is whether or not the protagonist is living in the real world or some artificial reality. And if his world isn’t real, what’s the point of the simulation in the first place? I chose to write about this idea because the existential implications fascinate me. If the world is fake, if the creator of it is some kid playing a more sophisticated version of The Sims, it would explain why horrifying tragedies occur in a world that many believe was built by a benevolent deity. My beliefs since my mid teens have wavered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism, and this is the first possible explanation for the world that ever caused me to rethink those beliefs. Already I’ve received feedback from readers who claim Thomas World has caused them to look at the world in a different way. But maybe it really didn’t. Maybe they’re only playing their roles.

Existential concerns don’t have much to do with everyday reality, though. You still have to get up and go to work every day regardless of whether or not the world is real. However, the difference between humans and current day computers is we are afforded the luxury to entertain ourselves with these concerns. We’re able to appreciate music, whereas computers are mainly limited to identifying a piece of music when you let your iPhone listen to a few seconds of it. The technology of music identification is a type of pattern recognition, and it is impressive, but it’s nothing like the abstract and complex relationships the human brain makes when listening to a beautiful passage of, say, Mozart.

My girlfriend was sitting next to me last night, and when I looked at her I wondered briefly if she was real. The reason I wondered this is she seems to be the physical manifestation of a set of attributes I’ve often wished could be found in a single person. And because I am a writer, and since I do enjoy contemplating existence and its possible meanings, it occurred to me that my life might be a video game for which I wrote the script. When I mentioned this to her, she smiled and even blushed a little. And then the moment passed, and I let go of the idea, because whether or not she is real or something other than real, she is nevertheless a part of my life, and rather than wonder how that came to pass, I decided instead to simply enjoy it.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

39 responses to “What Sort of Pattern Do You See?”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Well, I guess I’ll go throw out my post about patterns then.

    Or maybe I should read your post first…

    Okay! This did not say what I thought it would say, based on what I know of you and your thought patterns. I’m not throwing my post out.

    Decoding repetitive human behavior can be interesting to the layperson, but provides little direct benefit.

    I derive tremendous, near-addictive satisfaction from decoding human behavior. And not just that. Anything. Anything involving patterns. Historical patterns, relationship patterns, etc.

    The simple act of figuring-out–the intellectual equivalent of reconstructing the scaffolding of a facade that’s already built–gives me a big, pointless brain boner with which I hope to one day make sweet, sweet love to all theoretical knowledge-dom.

    Also, I’m super glad your girlfriend is so awesome.

    The End.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I suppose I mean little tangible benefit. A big, pointless brain boner is beneficial for sure, but also, well, pointless.

      I derive the same sort of satisfaction. It entertains me greatly. It’s probably part of why I like to write. And if I get paid for something I’ve written, I suppose that is tangible.

      The girlfriend is definitely awesome. She’s been mentioned in two straight posts. Luckily she seems to think I’m kind of awesome as well. So far.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I know. I know what you mean.

        But you can swordfight with the brain boner. And bust out the measuring tape, of course, after everyone’s had a few pulls from the bottle of peppermint schnapps swiped from mom’s holiday stash.

        I mean, you know, figuratively speaking.

        I think I’m off topic now, so I’m going to stop.

  2. SAA says:

    For a few months it seemed like every time I looked at a clock it said 11:11. I naturally assumed it was a brain tumor. Other numbers that jump out at me are 420 and 666, because deep down inside I’m just a 13 year old boy.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Enjoyed this, Coxy, particularly the ending. On one hand, it was surprising to end there, but tracing back through the piece, it made perfect sense.

    Even hardcore, unapologetic, in-your-face Science Fiction writers as yourself have a soft side. Who knew?

  4. Paul Gilmartin says:

    I think it’s hilarious how anthropocentric we are when it comes to constellations, grouping stars that aren’t even in the same relative vicinity because of how they look from our pale blue dot. Great article Richard, early happy birthday!

  5. Gloria says:

    God isn’t benevolent or malevolent. That’s what I think. I think god is life – literally. God makes no choice and is amoralistic. I won’t go on, as this is pretty personal and I don’t give a rip what others think and I’m not trying to make them think like me. But if you want a thorough defense of this position, let me know off the board.

    Anywho. Patterns. Yes. Not just seen in task-oriented behaviors like driving, but also in behaviors associated with relationships and loads of other subtle elements of existence. I think our brains need patterns. The world would be a Jackson Pollock painting of chaos. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

    Thoughtful piece, Richard. 🙂

    • Richard Cox says:

      Identifying patterns is helpful when you’re in the bush trying to not become dinner, so that ability isn’t surprising. Now that survival is less difficult, we’re free to let our minds wander about more abstract ideas. There’s a lot of horsepower in one brain, and when you get a bunch of them collectively working on certain problems, like physics or medicine or whatever, you can make a lot of progress.

      And yes, distilling the massive inflow of external stimuli through our five senses is another reason to see patterns. Without that process we’d be overwhelmed for sure.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    I don’t see patterns, but I do look for signs.
    Are they the same thing?
    Or maybe my pattern is looking for signs. Or maybe this piece is a sign I should stop looking for signs and instead look for patterns.
    Or maybe I should take up knitting.

    Yay, Richrob! Back on the boards. How nice to read you again – it seems like it’s been an age.

    I don’t know much about the human brain, all I do know is that mine is extraordinarily tired right now and needs an upgrade.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I think your pattern is to look for signs. And also, looking for signs is like looking for patterns that aren’t there. Like signs of the Zodiac. Or something.

      I just zested twenty lemons and I have a blister on my thumb, so I’m going to stop typing now. But I’ll have limoncello in time for the holidays.

  7. I see “THE PER DIEM” immediately. Is that the pattern? Is it a Vince Vaughn/Made reference? Hmmm. I’m going to keep looking.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Excellent! I know you’re a Made fan. Good work, T-Money.

      The title goes along with the code. “What sort of pattern do you see?” “The per diem.” From the Made outtakes, which is also mentioned in the tags.

      • Haha. I didn’t even notice “Made outtakes” in the tags… that’s how much of a fan of that movie I am. Dave and I say, “That’s MY per diem!” every time a per diem is mentioned for any reason.

        Made also contains my favorite quote of all time: “There’s a nice way to do that.” Because there usually is, and if you don’t try doing it that way first, you’re possibly being a jerk.

        I think you and I could probably rant for hours about the driving mistakes you mentioned here, plus one thousand more of them. People don’t even seem to know the most basic rules of the road anymore. Like right-turning into the right lane, rather than lazily swooping out into the left. Or slower cars stay to the right, faster cars pass on the left. Or turn signals: they’re not just for whimsical use. Etc. Like I said. I’ve got hours of this. (Hey, public schools. I’m a-talkin’ to you. It’s called Driver’s Ed. Make it a fucking priority.)

        I really liked this one, Richard.

        I would comment more, but I need to go get ready for work now. I’m a tall drink of water, I gotta stretch my shit out. (:

  8. Irene Zion says:

    Please write a piece on annoying driving. Everyone would want to join in and add to your list.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Hello, Irene. Been a long time. I see you’re still sporting that light saber avatar.

      I think if I began a piece on annoying drivers I’d end up just copying and pasting Sartre quotes into the WordPress form. People are idiots.

  9. Irene Zion says:

    No no no!
    Your post on bad drivers would be so welcome. It would go viral.

    Been away. Glad to be back.

  10. You know the concept of Thomas World freaks me out. That scene in which he sees the edges of a landscape give over to a grid? Yeah. Well. I had a dream I was looking at the moon through a telescope and found it was pixelated. Thank you. 😉 But seriously, it freaks me out in the best, most thought-provoking ways.

    And I like this rumination on patterns. It fascinates me as well along with how that sort of universal pattern recognition has evolved with environment and technology and so forth — you know, how everyone in the 14th century looking at the same marble column could all plainly see the same figures and landscape in the swirls and now nobody sees it. Or they see something else entirely.

    What a sweet ending to this, too 🙂

    • Richard Cox says:

      I’m glad the TW concepts freak you out. That’s great. In some ways I felt like I was writing a horror novel when I wrote that. I put him through so many “real” ways reality can be altered…like when he’s drunk or on Ambien (or both), the mushrooms, etc. Obviously the point is we already mess with reality so much that how do you draw a distinction between that and a possible simulated world?

      The brain is amazing for many reasons, but this thing it does where it stitches together “reality” from the input from our various sensory organs, turns it into a running narrative…we take this for granted because we live it every day, but it’s an extraordinary achievement. That the universe has evolved in such a way to contemplate itself is the most fascinating science-related concept I can think of. We’re stardust. Every human on Earth is built from heavy elements that were ejected from some long ago supernova, and now here we are looking at the sky and labeling things “supernovas,” forgetting that we are the universe the same way that stars and planets are. The only difference is the brain is so fantastically complex that it can ponder its own existence. That more people don’t realize this or discuss this is a bit depressing. I realize knowing we’re stardust doesn’t make going to work any more fun, but still.

      I’m rambling here. I like your dream. I think it would be funny to have a dream where you looked through a telescope and realized stars were can lights like in The Truman Show. Come to think of it, I guess in Truman’s world there was no such thing as telescopes. I mean if he looked through one it would all be over. I’m realizing this like 10 years after I first saw the film.

  11. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    I so enjoy your brain.

    This concept: For instance, because we’re so good at identifying patterns, we often see patterns where they don’t exist. I’ve been struggling with this for awhile. Actually, it’s mainly something that plagues me since technological socializing became prevalent. The ways people communicate now – the inherent identification patterns you speak of – it is confusing because it is generic… Read the typical newspaper horoscope and you’ll find the sort of generalized life experiences with which almost anyone can vaguely identify.

    Well, interesting ideas here, Coxy. I recently read a book by a guy you might relate to somewhat, it’s called “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. He basically discusses the fallacy of distinction. Like, people who become *great* are products of various lucky assimilations of history and timing. Which, for all its interesting empirical data, completely disregards the magic of life. Also, he presents a bizarre compilation of random examples and personal data. I appreciated his book and blazed through it, but I also couldn’t quite take him seriously. He’s not like you in one way. He fails philosophically, where you don’t. Anyway, I’m rambling.

    Once again, I enjoy your brain, Coxy. I must admit, I have not read your novel yet. I want to, and I will when the moment I’m in passes. (An essential person in my life is in hospice.) You make me curious. I like that.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Just from the title alone I think I would like to have a look at the book. Statistical outliers are inherently interesting for the very fact that they are different than the norm. Like when you drive to work every day, on the same road, passing the same businesses, you don’t collect and store much of that information because it’s not interesting or necessary. Upon arriving at work, you probably can’t even remember much of the drive. What you do remember is seeing that hot chick in the convertible Maserati because that’s unusual (at least here, not necessarily in L.A.) It’s an outlier, so the brain flags it as different than the normal experience. If you saw a hundred hot chicks in Maseratis on the way to work, you’d stop seeing them. The brain probably does this in large part because it needed that sort of functionality back in the jungle as a way to avoid danger. Now that danger avoidance is less necessary, we can use that same ability to power our curiosity.

      Celebrities are interesting to us because they are outliers. In today’s culture you can be a celebrity for no reason, but most well-known folks possess some ability that is statistically an outlier. Tiger Woods at the height of his powers was an outlier in golf ability. Michael Jordan. Meryl Streep. Others don’t possess extraordinary abilities in their field, like Madonna, for instance, but they do possess an extraordinary desire to become successful. And even Madonna is a pretty damned good songwriter and an even better marketer. Stephen King once wrote about something Elvis Presley said, about how he felt like he was in a pen with a bunch of animals, and then someone came along and put him in this other pen by himself, almost arbitrarily, and now everyone pays attention to him. I get what he means, to wonder why he was chosen among a lot of other talented singers, but I think he was selling himself a bit short on his ability to understand what people wanted out of a performer.

      Interesting thoughts, LRC. Thanks for the book recommendation.

  12. jmblaine says:

    Beauty & Chaos
    our constants
    kicked in the head
    by horses….

    I wonder this all the time myself.
    It takes me two minutes
    to reply to anyone because
    I am trying to figure out if they are real.

    Ah, the Ambien night gorge.
    I miss those.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Not to plug my own work again, but at the end of Thomas World, there is a section of notes about how I came to write that novel. The one everyone loves is the story of Veronika, this fake persona on MySpace that became my “friend.” It was some woman in California who began commenting on my MySpace blog and who built this profile of a 21-year-old hot college student. I ended up having extremely long and satisfying email conversations with this woman, all the while knowing she had stolen a bunch of pictures from someone’s Flickr account or whatever and pretended to be someone she wasn’t. Well, I strongly suspected it and then confirmed it when I did some Internet hocus pocus investigating. I maintained a relationship with her because it was interesting, even though I knew she was putting me on. She was hiding behind these pictures, and for a long time I didn’t even know for sure if it was a man or a woman, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the conversations themselves. Eventually I did decide she should be honest with me, and I confronted her, and she didn’t speak to me again after that. But the experience had such a profound influence on me writing a book about simulated reality that I dedicated the book to her. To the fake person.

      Right now I’m in an email conversation with someone in Canada who read my novel and believes I should not have confronted Veronika about hiding behind the fake profile. This person’s argument is we all color reality in various ways, by wearing makeup, by using Botox or getting braces or whatever. She has a point. Ultimately what you want your relationships to be is up to you and the people with whom you share them. For a while I was fine knowing Veronika was putting me on. Then I decided I wasn’t. Maybe this person talking to me now is actually Veronika, but I doubt it. I hope “Veronika” reads the novel, though, and appreciates the dedication. It wouldn’t have been the same book without her, regardless of who she really is.

      There’s a funny Ambien scene in the book, too. I finally quit using that shit about four months ago. It wasn’t even helping me sleep anymore. I just liked the funny thoughts I would have. The idea of state-sanctioned hallucinogens amuses me.

  13. Tammy Allen says:

    The more aware a person is the more complex the patterns become. You are aware and frustrated by those who are not. Join the club. I call the positioning to the right to turn left the “Swing Out Sister” maneuver after the 80’s band. I get all swishy and laugh at the person and say Sawing Out Sista!

    Here’s to complex patterns!

    I did have a oh no you didn’t moment when reading this…”If you’ve ever been locked in an argument with your spouse over what she just said five minutes ago, you know what I’m talking about. ”

    I take issue with this only because I just got divorced from a man that swore he took out the garbage every week among other things that were absurdly untrue. Plus the tendency of men to gaslight women to diminish their opinion – usually in a relationship but it happens all the time. Don’t dis me cuz you think your right.

    Other than that great post.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Well the argument with your spouse could go either way. Didn’t mean to imply women were more likely to forget than men. I try to vary my pronouns to remain gender neutral, and especially in this piece I meant the human race as a whole.

      I’m sorry to say I was forced to Google the term “gaslight.” But thanks for adding that word to my vocabulary.

      Love the Swing Out Sister. I’m glad someone else notices this besides me. It confounds me why people even do this in the first place. If you love the curb so much, why don’t you marry it??

  14. Lorna says:

    “One of my favorites is when people drift into a turn lane and then absently activate their blinker, completely forgetting that a signal is meant to convey intent. What these folks are doing is essentially the same as punching someone in the face and then angrily notifying the offender that if he doesn’t stop insulting your mother, you’re going to hit him.”

    Hmmmm, I always use my blinker before switching lanes. However, I often punch punch before the warning. I’m certain if there was a handbook on life, I would obey the traffic rules much better. 🙂

    “My girlfriend was sitting next to me last night, and when I looked at her I wondered briefly if she was real. The reason I wondered this is she seems to be the physical manifestation of a set of attributes I’ve often wished could be found in a single person. And because I am a writer, and since I do enjoy contemplating existence and its possible meanings, it occurred to me that my life might be a video game for which I wrote the script.”

    This is simply my opinion, but I believe manifestations come about when we begin paying attention to the patterns that are presented to us. Isn’t it a trip to think that you could have possibly created the girlfriend sitting next to you? 🙂

    • Richard Cox says:

      Driving does have a handbook, and most of the rules are common sense when you think about them. Life is a lot more relative than “signal, then turn.” Ha.

      I wonder sometimes about the manifesting your desires idea. I guess that’s the driving idea behind The Secret. I think it’s fascinating to consider I might have willed her into existence. If so it was a rather meandering path to get here.

  15. Veronika Larsson says:

    Richard, you continue to lie about me, so I’m going to set some things straight.

    First: You’re a cyberstalker. There’s no other way to describe you. Your own actions, which you’ve detailed in nerdish obsessiveness, prove that.

    Second: I broke off contact with you after you sent me very inappropriate offline messages. I didn’t feel comfortable receiving any sort of sexual messages from a man I didn’t know, but especially not one who was married at the time. You blamed the messages on Ambien, but that’s bullshit: the Ambien relaxed your inhibitions but you are responsible for your own actions. I didn’t forward those messages to your then-wife because I didn’t want to cause trouble in another person’s real life…unlike you, who have cooperated with Jack Werner in attempting to stalk and harass me for God knows how long now.

    Third, I have a question for you: would you like me to post screenshots of those sexual come-ons you sent me? Just say the word. I mean, it was the Ambien talking, not you, right, so you’re absolved of all responsibility for sending those
    messages to someone who was then only seventeen years old.

    One more thing: Thomas World is just a poor ripoff of eXistenz. If that’s the best you can do, then you should stop writing fiction, and especially the fiction about me.

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