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A recent post by Jonah Lehrer brings to the fore the positive and negative aspects of our brains’ unconscious cognitive processes. He talks of how our dopamine neurons drive us to find patterns of regularity in the world around us. For a language-using, tool-using animal, the ability to detect patterns in things is obviously enormously important. It is by recognising patterns that we can employ words, both verbally and graphically, and it is by recognising social patterns of behaviour that we can engage in sophisticated forms of cooperation. Finally, it is by recognising causal patterns in nature that we can develop sophisticated future-directed methods and stategies for sustaining and protecting ourselves.

A recent post by Jonah Lehrer brings to the fore the positive and negative aspects of our brains’ unconscious cognitive processes. He talks of how our dopamine neurons drive us to find patterns of regularity in the world around us. For a language-using, tool-using animal, the ability to detect patterns in things is obviously enormously important. It is by recognising patterns that we can employ words, both verbally and graphically, and it is by recognising social patterns of behaviour that we can engage in sophisticated forms of cooperation. Finally, it is by recognising causal patterns in nature that we can develop sophisticated future-directed methods and stategies for sustaining and protecting ourselves.

But there is a downside to this sub-personal tendency to find patterns in things. We see order in randomness – we see things that are not really there. Jonah uses the example of stock markets; traders employ all sorts of complicated models to predict them, but these are often next to useless. However, I don’t think this is a particularly good example, as the desire to find patterns in stock markets is probably driven by the desire to make money, rather than the feeling of reward that pattern-finding simpliciter yields.

What interests me here is the double-edged nature of decision-making that is informed by pattern recognition and that is driven by dopamine neurons. On the plus side we take a joy in capacities that are so important for us: locating patterns of regularity in an overwhelmingly complex natural world; locating patterns of meaning in an overwhelmingly complex social world. In my opinion, the joy we take in music, poetry and the arts is deeply rooted in our pattern-finding capacities. A perfectly crafted three minute Motown song might lay down a pattern we find very easy to follow but now with heightened emotional intensity. A Bach fugue might thrill us with the excquisite nature of its counterpoint variations on a theme – taking our natural ability to detect increasingly fine-grained patterns of similarity and difference to new heights. A Mondrian painting might distill down the essential elements of landscape and our subjective view of it. And, even a conceptual work like Robert Rauschenberg’s telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert draws a pattern holding between things that we perhaps haven’t seen or thought about before.

Art is a wondeful example of the double-edged nature of our enjoyment in pattern-finding. On the one hand, we revel in tracking the patterns it traces out – that is, we revel in the familiarity of certain patterns like the human form, but also in testing our skill in tracing complex or unusual ones. On the other hand, some art actually disrupts our pattern-finding abilities – stops us from staying in familiar grooves, creates a dissonance that stirs us to try to understand anew. Adorno wrote about this latter kind of possibility for art, citing the compositions of Schoenberg and Berg as examples of art that disrupts our usual cognitive patterns and forces us to pay close attention to the precisie material structure of the object we are engaging with.

I think there is a kind of joy in both these forms of aesthetic pleasure because they tap into three levels of pattern-finding that we excel at as human-beings. At the frist level, there is the unconscious pattern-finding that serves us so well as natural and social animals. The reward at this level is a kind of comfort in familiarity. At the second level, there is the joy in tracking complex unexpected patterns. The sense of reward here is not so simple – it is a reward that engages our conscious brains; we become aware of our abilities to track patterns because they are pushed to their limits and also because we notice unusual or unexpected ones. To a certain extent, this kind of feeling of reward helps us hone the unconsicous level of pattern-finding that informs simple decision-making. But it also enables us to make decisions that engage far more complex data. Finally, at the third level we are forced to reflect on our pattern-finding capacities per se – we reach a meta-cognitive state where we realise that we are constantly imposing patterns and that there are inherent dangers in doing this. In other words, at this level we actually cognise the double-edged nature of our dopamine driven pattern-finding capacities – we see that they enable us to track features of natural and social reality, yet we also see that in constantly employing this capacity we may in fact be simply imposing form rather than discovering it.

The lessons from this three-level view of pattern-finding and decision-making are the following. Our unconscious cognition can aid us greatly and in many situations should be trusted and not reduced to more self-conscious cognition. But this level of cognition needs to be trained and honed. It needs to be informed by experiences and learning that constantly calibrate its tendency to simplify – we need to be continually open to the new patterns around us. And the aesthetic pleasure taken in art can help us here. But lest we become self-satisfied about our honed capacities, we need to, if we can, reach the meta-cognitive level where we come to see that pattern-finding per se has a double nature – the wonder of our tracking patterns in the material world and the delusion of our imposing patterns that aren’t actually there.

I think there is a joy in exposing this delusional tendency. It is the joy of being – or aiming to be – both an embodied creature connected up reliably through perception to the world, and a self-critical and rational animal capable of reflective insight into its own cognitive predicament.

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