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Patterns everywhere

We see shapes in the clouds and the stars. We see faces in objects as cars, houses and you name it. Even more, we attribute emotions and even intentions to them. Take a look at this image, what do you see? 

No one answers, just a carrot. Most people see a naked carrot, a carrot covering up herself, or an ashamed carrot (poor carrot!).

Why does it happen? Because our brain is a pattern-finding machine, very sharp at recognizing objects or people when they are partially occluded, in dim light or in the fog. But this amazing capability comes with a funny side, we spot faces or patterns where there are none. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the advantage of a cognitive system like this is that it won’t miss a thing, and when you have to survive in the wild you can’t afford to miss a predator or possible adversary, can you? Of course, the downside is that you might be startled by that threatening animal that turns out to be just a branch. That is, our perceptive systems make mistakes, quite often.

Not being aware of our cognitive limitations can lead to premature conclusions, especially because our tendency to connect the dots to establish patterns extends beyond the inanimate. We also find patterns between actions and objects, like believing that my team won because I used that particular shirt everytime. Sorry, but your lucky charm doesn’t actually work.

Or picture that you are running late for work and you get all the red lights, a sunday-driver in a one lane street, and find all the parking spots taken when you get there. Maybe you’ll start wondering whether a mysterious force is trying to ruin your day. Or, you anticipate that after these events, the meeting won’t go well (it can’t go well). The universe is sending you signals! Well, maybe you are just seeing things where there’s nothing to see.

This ability to make connections helps us create predictable models of reality, therefore giving us the ability to foresee, plan and detect the order in the chaos. And of course, gives us the chance to have a great time just looking at the sky.


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