“Really, I’m just guessing!” – Your brain

We like patterns! Our brain likes to find them even when there aren’t any to be found. This podcast by Scientific American explains, very briefly, two studies that asked participants too look for trends in artificial stock market data and images in video static. In both cases the subjects found patterns were there weren’t any, this is called illusory pattern perception.

Source: Scientific American

The reason for this pattern seeking behavior is simple. Our brain needs to process a lot of data, which is oftentimes incomplete. Detecting patterns can also be helpful from a survival perspective. Being able to pick out changes in your surroundings is key to being able to act quickly in a dangerous situation.

It gets worse! You’re brain is not only scanning your senses to detect patterns, but it’s also making stuff up. The amount of raw data available to parse is enormous. Whereas the processor in your computer would (slowly) start processing it bit by bit, our brain performs a different trick. It assumes its smart enough to select only the most important information and fill in the blanks by logical deduction.  Good luck with that!

As any student that has tried to apply this same methodology to their studies can confirm: this isn’t a flawless system. But it does allow us to quickly react to our surroundings and make intelligent decisions based on incomplete data. A field in which robotics still have a long way to go. For instance, it’s because of this system that we can (mentally) track a pedestrian that momentarily is obscured by obstacles along the line-of-sight.

Based on past experiences our brain creates a complex model of the way everything around us interacts. But this modus operandi also makes our brain susceptible to deception. We often overestimate our ability to grasp what’s going on in our surrounding, a vulnerability that is exploited by magicians and pickpockets around the world.

What can you take away from this? Your brain is a powerful beast, learn to respect it and learn the limits of its powers. Nervous for a presentation and certain that everybody will notice it? It probably isn’t (entirely) true, your mind is just very good at convincing you.

Remember, sometimes we  do assume a bit too much.

Alt text: You know what happens when you assert–you make an ass out of the emergency response team. Source: XKCD

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