Persistent Patterns

It’s been way too long since my last pretentious philosophical post. I’ve got about three half-written, but none of them have really come together yet. But tonight, I’m posting something, dammit!

I actually want to revisit my completely uninformed picture of what goes on in our brain. Long-time readers may remember my series of cognitive subroutines posts, which were mostly superceded by the book On Intelligence. Basically, it’s the idea that our brain is just a pattern-forming and pattern-recognition machine.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when I went to play volleyball out on Long Beach, accessible from the LIRR. I haven’t played seriously since leaving Stanford eight years ago, and I think I’ve played volleyball once in the past two years. So it took me a while to do anything right. The ridiculous wind didn’t help. But by the end of the day, as I got back into it and the wind died down, the muscle memory kicked back in (as it did with skiing), and I was able to start getting some good hits and passes (my setting is still atrocious though) (Oh, and regardless of how well I played, it was awesome to be out on the beach all day even if I got a bit toasted).

It still amazes me that my body remembers this sort of stuff. I haven’t done it in years, I don’t practice, and yet it’s still there when called upon. Hitting a volleyball is one of the most complex athletic actions there is, because it involves your legs, torso and arms, all coordinated with a ball travelling through the air. And yet, my ability to hit was lying there dormant, waiting to be used. It wasn’t quite as if I’d never stopped, since my consistency wasn’t great, but it was far better than I had any right to expect given the years away.

I think our brains stores lots of other dormant patterns as well. I was thinking of how our personality changes when we’re around people that have known us a long time – we tend to revert the person that we were when we first met those people. In the TEP community, I’m always going to be “Young Perlick”, the gawky 16-year-old freshman. To my parents, I’m always going to be their little baby. And those expectations feed back on us and reactivate those dormant patterns of behavior. So even though I’ve been living on my own for years, when I’m in my parents’ house, I still feel like a kid. The contextual cues of our environment determine who we are.

I’ve been wondering if I could leverage this sort of contextual reactivation of dormant patterns to recall things I learned once but have long forgotten. For instance, two of my coworkers were playing around with some logic notation that I learned back in high school when I took a number theory class at nerd camp. And it surprised me that I remembered it. I didn’t remember the other things I learned in that class, but I wonder if I were plopped into the right environment whether it would start to come back. Along similar lines, I did get into that Master’s program in Technology Management at Columbia. I haven’t taken classes in over eight years. I don’t know if I remember any math. But I’m kind of relying on the idea that once I’m back in that environment, my unconscious brain will kick in and pull all of those patterns from long-term storage. At least I hope it does 🙂

Another area in which I’ve noticed this phenomenon of pattern reactivation is with books. When I pick up a book that I’m only partly through (which right now I have way too many of), if it’s a good book, it’s really easy for me to get back into it. Good sci-fi or fiction will carry me along and suck me right back into the story (I lent my coworker my copy of Sources of Power, and she reminded me of his description of stories as encoding patterns that we have learned and are trying to teach others, which reminds me of my thoughts about stories. Anyway.), which reactivates the patterns. Really bad books are the opposite, such as Shadow Puppets, where I had to re-read several chapters before realizing I’d already read it.

And the same holds true for non-fiction – good non-fiction is creating patterns in my head that help me make sense of the world around me, that are reinforced by my daily experience. I remember what’s going on because the patterns of ideas are being woven into my personal collective. Sometimes, like with Latour, the patterns are very large and different, so it takes me a while to incorporate them. Other times, like with business books, you can get the idea by reading the first 20 pages. Either way if the patterns are both strong and aligned with my idea framework, they are very easy for me to get back into after some time away. If they are weaker or less relevant, I can’t manage it, and the book never gets picked up again.

I’m not quite sure if this really tied anything together, or was just a sprawling ramble through a bunch of different areas, with a really tenuous hand-wavey connection. But that’s y’all’s problem. I’m heading to bed.


way too many of: I went to the library a couple weekends ago. Plus I got a big Amazon order two months ago. Plus I went to that used book store last week. So I’m partway through many books, with many more waiting on the shelf. A quick collection of the ones I’ve started (and not counting the ones I’ve started but have put down and will probably never finish – these are the ones I intend to finish. Really. Honest.):

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (lent to me by a friend, and I should really finish it)
  • My Life as a Quant, by Emanuel Derman (which is now overdue because I failed to notice it was a one-week rental – oops)
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris (also library – nice bedtime reading except that I’m so exhausted I fall asleep immediately)
  • Lipstick on a Pig, by Torie Clarke (also library, book on PR and communications – the subtitle is “Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game”)
  • Why Do I Love These People?, by Po Bronson (bought after enjoying What Should I Do With My Life?, started a few months ago, rediscovered last week)
  • Identity and Violence, by Amartya Sen (which I’ve mentioned before)
  • The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp (lent to me by another friend, and I should really finish it too)
  • Intuition, by Allegra Goodman (recommended by The Economist, and picked up last week from the used book store)

Quick – find the common thread between all of those books… I have really odd reading habits, don’t I?

One thought on “Persistent Patterns

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.