Pattern Recognition: what it is and how to develop it

Our brain’s pattern recognition abilities help us recognise certain objects and situations. Without these abilities, it would be impossible to make progress, as we’d be living in a kind of Groundhog Day...
February 18, 2021
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Pattern recognition is a process in which we use multiple senses in order to make decisions. As we go through our day, our brain’s pattern recognition abilities help us recognise certain objects and situations. For example we know that large, upright, flat rectangular pieces of wood are doors, and we know that we can open and close them to pass between different rooms. Even if we encounter a door we’ve never seen before, we’re almost certain to recognise it as a door, and thus know how to use it.

Without these abilities, it would be impossible to make progress, as we’d be living in a kind of Groundhog Day, where everything we encounter would appear completely new, over and over, and would therefore need to be learned and understood each time.

One of the principal researchers in this area is Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, who believes pattern recognition to be critical in most human decision-making tasks. And as explained in The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: “Computers are extraordinarily good at pattern recognition within their frames, and terrible outside them. This is good news for human workers because thanks to our multiple senses, our frames are inherently broader than those of digital technologies. At present and for some time to come, the sensory package and its tight connection to the pattern-recognition engine of the brain gives us a broader frame.”

To explain this, think about the fact that much has been made of recent advances in artificial intelligence, with computers beating human experts at Chess, Jeopardy and Go. But if you asked AlphaGo, the computer that beat Lee Sedol, the world's top Go player, to take you on at chess, you’d probably win. This is because AlphaGo is programmed to play Go, and absolutely nothing else – it recognises patterns of play within a severely limited frame of reference.

How can pattern recognition be used in business?

Brynjolfsson and McAfee use Spanish clothing company Zara as an interesting case study, in that Zara uses humans instead of computers to decide which clothes to make.

“To answer the critical question: ‘Which clothes should we make and ship to each store?’ Zara relies on its store managers around the world to order exactly, and only, the merchandise that will sell in that location over the next few days. Managers figure this out not by consulting algorithms but instead by walking around the store, observing what shoppers (particularly cool ones) are wearing, talking to them about what they like and what they’re looking for, and generally doing many things at which people excel.”

So this ‘large-frame’ pattern recognition is what enables us humans to spot things really effectively. As well as identifying trends, we might notice a pattern from a specific industry and investigate if it might also apply to other industries. And we can turn the focus onto ourselves too - being able to spot patterns in our own and other people’s behaviour helps us make sense of a world that can too often feel confusing and random.

However, we must take care to distinguish between patterns and randomness – by guarding against the temptation to see patterns where they don’t exist. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights where we are prone to make serious mistakes in evaluating the randomness of truly random events. He uses the example of basketball, where if a player sinks five baskets in a row, we’re likely to believe he has a ‘hot hand’ – a temporarily increased propensity to score. The player’s teammates are more likely to pass to him, and he can expect increased focus on him defensively from the opposing team as a result. However, statistical analysis of thousands of sequences of shots confirmed the idea of a ‘hot hand’ to be false. It’s all down to randomness.

How to develop your pattern recognition skills

Practice. Chess masters become masters through hours of rigorous practice. Regular consistent practice is the only way to develop your pattern recognition skills to a high level. The way you practice is similarly important, it needs to be deliberate and challenging. Practice just outside of your comfort zone and force yourself to learn from experts, masters and novices, this way you’ll see patterns emerging and develop a keener eye for patterns.

Maths. There are many patterns in maths, such as the Fibonacci sequence - a series of numbers where a number is found by adding up the two numbers before it. Studying maths, and practicing different types of equations and sums helps develop and strengthen our abstract reasoning and pattern recognition. Whether it’s Sudoku or algebra, ensure you push yourself to solve increasingly difficult problems.

Nature. The natural world can seem random at times, but paying close attention can reveal interesting patterns and help improve our ability to recognise them. From the seasons, through to the way icicles form and develop – patterns are ubiquitous in nature. By paying closer attention and studying patterns in nature we can refine and develop our pattern recognition skills in an engaging and fun way.

Get Perspective. Getting perspective is essential for spotting the big patterns. Just like it’s impossible to see the full terrain of a desert whilst you’re traversing it, it’s also difficult to spot patterns when you’re too involved in the domain or problem. Try to step back and looking at the bigger picture, or view your subject from different angles - learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.

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