The Mind - new insights

The brain as a pattern-matching organ.

We make sense of (intellectually understand) everything we see, hear, touch, by matching the information with a neural element (or pattern) already on file in our brain. The continuous stream of information is processed quickly and efficiently. The familiar information has an exact pattern (we understand it well); unfamiliar information takes a little longer but with the use of an approximate pattern, we are able to say "Hmmm, it is like..." thus making sense of new information.

The healthy brain has a fascination for the unfamiliar or novel, it is continually ready for the challenge of making sense of things it does not understand, continually learning, thereby adding to its library of patterns. The term 'approximate pattern' is important, for without this, the new information cannot be processed or understood.

It could be said then, that the brain is a pattern-matching organ. This definition has implications for understanding the healthy brain, as well as getting a clearer picture of what happens when things go wrong. The implications include:

  • metaphor ('it is like') is fundamental part of information processing
  • what we 'know' depends on the number of patterns we have access to
  • learning relies on new information being added to existing approximate patterns
  • our model of 'reality' comes from the patterns we use

Many patterns are instinctive, they were formed during the development of the foetus and are necessary for survival - avoiding harm and getting our needs met. In the process of making sense of things, the information from our sense organs passes through the survival part of the brain that filters the stimuli for threats to our needs getting or being met.

Pattern-matching at this level takes place before any conscious awareness, it is pre-language and pre-thought. The implications of this fairly recent understanding are significant, the principle one being thought as we know it, is a 're-presentation' of the original stimuli that may or may not have changed depending on the patterns used to make sense of it. This 'filtering' process means innate human needs influence thought itself.

The patterns used in this filtering process include ones we were born with, and ones added during our formative years and beyond. While some of these patterns are generic, many are unique to the individual - formed by learning and experience. Pattern-matching is an efficient way for the brain to make sense of stimuli based on what it has processed before, and avoids having to deal with a vast array of experience as though it is a first-time event. (Alzheimer's is characterised by poor access to patterns, thus responding to each experience as a new event.)

While pattern-matching may be an efficient process, it is subject to factors that may increase or decrease its capacity to select appropriate patterns for specific situations. Emotions, for example, essentially prepare the body for action of some kind, from the extreme fight flight freeze response that marshals a host of body systems in preparation for action, to a more simple tactile sympathy gesture that may have little more physiological dimension than a moistening of the eyes. With heightened emotional arousal the level of sophistication in the brain's search for an appropriate pattern is reduced, and a pattern from a limited range will usually be selected.

This primitive pattern-matching is known as 'black and white' thinking as the shades of grey, those insights that give each situation a here-and-now uniqueness, are lacking. Perfect for survival responses, but decidedly limiting if used on an on-going basis. Where the primitive patterns are used over and over again, thinking becomes self-focused, narrow, and pessimistic instead of expansive, explorative and others-focused. This thinking style is usually present in stress, depression and anxiety-related conditions, and the recognition that patterns are the filter through which all thoughts are formed, and the understanding that emotional arousal (excessive worry for example) causes a primitive thinking style, provides for effective therapeutic approaches.

The recognition that thoughts are influenced outside conscious awareness is not new. It has long been held that beliefs, values, as well as genetic make-up, contribute to an individual's thinking style. Certain people, for example, will perceive the world according to their personalities, their experience, and the degree to which they are influenced by intuition. What is new, however, is the understanding of the brain as a pattern-matching organ. Unlike genetic and personality characteristics, many patterns are a result of learning and consequently can be unlearned if they are limiting an individual's capacity to flourish, and new ones learned that enable better functioning.

The question becomes then: How is it possible to learn new patterns? The first requirement is to lower emotional arousal by any means. (It should be pointed out here that depression is a state of high emotional arousal, even if it does not appear so.) There is a range of simple methods used to induce a state of deep relaxation, even in the most agitated person.

The second factor in adding to a person's repertoire of patterns is recognising the power of metaphor. Imagery is the currency of the subconscious, so guided imagery and story telling are clearly the most successful means of by-passing the rational mind and influencing change at the most fundamental level - patterns through which a person makes sense of their world.

Three things are significant here. Firstly, the societies that have the lowest rates of depression and other anxiety-related conditions are those with a rich legacy of stories, and a continuing culture of storytelling.

Secondly, rich metaphorical stories have the potential to create patterns through which the individual can make sense of so much new information at a very fundamental level. One could say 'heart' level as distinct to 'mind' level. An understanding moreover, that is embraced even if the rational expression of that understanding matures much later in their experience.

Finally, there is much to suggest from our understanding of how the brain processes information that there are at least two quite distinct levels of functioning - the pattern-matching, image-based, sense-making level; and the thinking, intellectual, language-based level. Optimal functioning is when the interplay between them is fluid and balanced - problems arise when either is dominant at the expense of the other.

NOTE: Pattern-matching and the implications flowing from this concept is explained more fully with examples during the introductory Introducing the HG approach seminar.


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Linda Black, Wantirna VIC
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