The brain is a pattern-matching Organ

Chess Piece

It was so embarrassing. I was sure it was Judy, this morning in town. I saw this woman in the queue in the post office as I was leaving. I was so pleased, because I hadn’t seen her for ages, and we get on really well. She had her back to me, but when I put my hand on her shoulder and she turned round, it wasn’t Judy at all. It wasn’t a bit like Judy! How could I have made such a mistake?

What is happening in the above scenario?

The brain is pattern matching, but, in this instance, has got it wrong. It has linked characteristics in the stranger which are similar to Judy, and has come to the wrong conclusion.

Pattern-matching is a characteristic of the human brain, but is not unique to humans. It enables us to predict and expect what is coming. It also allows us to learn more quickly and be more flexible in our behaviour. Once a child knows what a chair is, he doesn’t need to be told again, even if he goes over to his friend’s and the kitchen chairs are different to those he has in his own home. Just as the adult brain is able to work out that an unusual chair never seen before, in a stately home, is a chair.

Driving becomes an automatic behaviour partly through pattern matching. When we drive along an unfamiliar route, the subconscious is constantly comparing it to previous experiences. If this didn’t happen, every time we came to a new junction, or an unfamiliar road, it would be like learning to drive again.

If you are already able to drive a car, learning to drive a tank is much easier because there are similarities. Otherwise, learning to drive a tank would be as difficult as it was when we first learnt to drive.

Pattern matching also allows us to read and understand language. We are able to communicate much more easily as we describe things by comparisons. When he told me the shocking news I felt as if I had been “knocked sideways”.

How does this work?

Every millisecond of our waking lives the brain is taking a snap shot of our experiences and logging it in the subconscious. It is like reels of cine film but these reels also include aspects such as temperature, smell, the food we have just eaten, and any discomfort we may feel in our bodies, and most importantly, our emotions. At the same time it is comparing each new situation with these reels of cine film. However, we are only consciously aware of about 7 to 8 bits of data at any one time. Taking the scenario involving Judy, imagine this snap shot as a very intricate jigsaw puzzle, made up of hundreds of pieces. This is compared to the jigsaw puzzle of my friend Judy. There are a number of pieces that are interchangeable, and it is these interchangeable pieces that the subconscious picked out which resulted in the mistaken identity. If it had picked out a different set of pieces, I would not have mistaken this lady for Judy.

All these cine films will have emotions attached to them, positive, negative and neutral. You may have had the experience of walking into a room and suddenly feeling uncomfortable. The brain has linked certain jigsaw pieces from this room to a previous experience which may have had fear or another negative emotion attached to it.

It can work against us!

So, pattern matching has many benefits, but, it can also work against us. The scenario of someone having a trivial car accident and a few months later being unable to get the car off the drive due to sheer fear, is all down to pattern matching. It was a small prang at a T junction. The next time on approaching a roundabout, the brain pattern matches, and decides that the roundabout is very much like the T junction, and is a dangerous place and it must be avoided. Then one day driving on to the motor way, the subconscious suddenly sees similarities of this to the roundabout and the original T junction. This could go on and on, until all possible situations are linked to the original accident resulting in the mere act of getting into the car triggers fear. General anxiety develops in a very similar way. A panic attack in a supermarket, could be pattern matched to the post office. If there was a person wearing a bright pink raincoat in the post office, the next time the brain sees something bright pink, in another situation it may trigger a panic attack and this situation is added to the list.

But we can take advantage of pattern matching in hypnotherapy!

One of the therapeutic techniques used in hypnotherapy is the use of metaphor, as this takes advantage of pattern matching. Metaphors are words or phrases used to compare objects or situations. The English language is full of metaphors such as the glass is half full, and children’s stories are often metaphorical – The Ugly Duckling. Everything passes via the conscious, logical brain to the subconscious. But before doing so, it is analysed by the conscious brain and compared with the files within the subconscious. A fear of visiting the dentist may be helped by visualising walking into a beautiful enclosed rose garden, entering through a rose arch. There is a comfortable garden chair which reclines, and on doing so the sun can be seen. On a table by the side of the chair is a glass of lemonade. Birds, perhaps a wood pecker, can be heard, and the gurgling of a distant stream. The emotions of feeling in a safe place are added. To the logical brain this is just a beautiful scene in a garden. But next time visiting the dentist, the subconscious pattern matches it to the rose garden, which is safe and secure, so presumes the dentist is also safe and secure!

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