Pattern Spotting

In my last post I talked about patterned living, and how it speeds up our experience of time and life. Here's a thought experiment I've picked up from Improv Guru Wade Jackson that shows how hard it is to shake patterns from our conscious. Try this:

  1. Get up and walk around. Point at things and name what they are called out loud - don't cheat - you have to point and you have to say it. Do this for 10-20 things. Go now, I'll wait


    Yes, you sounded like an idiot, but you'll find out why soon enough. Now for step two:

  2. Do the same exercise, but this time call them anything that the object is not. If you've got someone around, get them to listen to you do it. Try to use naming words. No pointing at your boyfriend and saying 'anger'. Do it now - and don't forget to actually point.


    Now you're really pulling off the crazy thing. But good on you for doing it. Ask your friend for help, what can you notice about your responses? I bet there was something connecting them all, a pattern in the madness? A few possibilities:

    • You named everything after something else you could see but weren't pointing at. Floor becomes ceiling, chair becomes table, human becomes dog etc.
    • You named everything after something that relates to that object or another object nearby. Computers become stereos, trees become soil etc.
    • You chose a familiar family of nouns and proceeded to name everything after that family. Desk becomes apple, chair becomes orange, person becomes pear etc.

    There are lots of possibilities for how you might have done it, but most people have something. Okay, last one:

  3. Do the same exercise but this time actually try and name another random thing while pointing at different objects in your environment. Go on, I'll wait.


Did you pull it off this time? It usually ends up with you pointing at a bean bag thinking "not bean bag, not bean bag, not beans bag..." head explode. That's how it goes for me anyway. Ask your friend if he's still around how you did. No secret patterns hiding?

Most people I know suck at this. I certainly do. The exceptions I've found are often people who didn't spend a lot of time in formal education or have been out of formal education for a long time and working in the creative sector. Musicians, writers, artists etc.

My main point is that, besides losing our ability to actually think randomly and, in a sense, creatively, we're also tightly bound up in a need to seek, apply and use patterns. Even when when we're told not to, patterned thinking is pervasive. Lots of what we learn at university and what we subsequently do in the workplace is seek patterns and fit our environment and observations to them.

This fails when the patterns we use are broken and we need new ones. And, as I wrote in my previous post, in fails us if we want to live longer as well.

You probably didn't do the exercise, too much pattern breaking to actually step away from the computer, but maybe next time your in a park you can get your friend to do it and comment on how constrained their creativity must be. Don't be a dick about it though.