June 30, 2011

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures

The offending kudzu. (Pic stolen from HuffPo).
We see funny, ridiculous stories like this all the time:

KINSTON, N.C.— Residents in an eastern North Carolina city say a patch of kudzu growing on a utility pole is more than an invasive vine. They see a likeness to Jesus Christ on the cross.

Have you ever wondered why people see jeebus everywhere? It's simple: people see patterns. It's what we do. This talent helped our ancestors to survive and that's why it persists in humans to this day. We had to see patterns, had to notice that when we traded with a particular person we always got the raw end of the deal. It was a pattern. Seeing patterns helps us to survive into the future.

It's a wildly useful talent. Early humans saw patterns all around them. They noticed that Winter comes once a year and that the seasons occur in a regular order. By keeping track of these patterns they were able to plan and survive -- and they invented science: the investigation of patterns.

Unfortunately, this human talent is active even when it's not needed and this produces useless perceptions like the faces and animals that we (think we) see in clouds. It's a talent that is always looking for an object; it can't stop seeing patterns. So we see an old man in the curl of the tablecloth, a figure in the shadows. This inerrant pattern recognition does us no good -- but we can't turn it off. It's how brains work.

We extend this talent further when we think that the wind and storms have a personality. We see a pattern and decide it's Mother Nature. But there is no Mother Nature. It's just something we once thought we saw. This talent is what gives rise to the idea of gods, a notion meant to be the ultimate summary of all patterns.

But the cloud creatures and Mother Nature and the gods are random products of aimless pattern-seeking, a talent gone mad. And those who fall prey to the god pattern see it all around them: in toast, oils spills, wood knots -- and vines.

It's a basic human capability gone haywire. When not put to good use, pattern-seeking latches on to nonsensical things and tries very hard to see them as something real. That's its job. It's like a kid that needs a project -- it just can't settle down. But it's all just static in our brains, a game that doesn't know how to shut itself off. There is no jeebus in the vines or anywhere else.

We see these things because we're hairless monkeys. We can't help it; evolution made us this way. This talent is both our saving grace and a swift portal to irrationality.

2 comments:

Artichoke Annie said...

I turned this image upside-down and I swear I saw Dr. Vito!

writenow said...

OMD. I've been seeing him everywhere too. You don't think it's a sign, do you?