Pattern Recognition: Super Brain Power… Sometimes

Pattern recognition is an amazingly helpful brain process that we take for granted. It consistently helps us make split second decisions in both large and small ways.

On the tennis courts, it’s obvious. The opponent takes his racquet back in preparation, and depending on how far he turns his shoulders, I know if he’s going to hit it to my backhand or forehand side.

My brain matches up previous memories of how this player hits, compares things in a nano second to current situation and conditions, and gets me ready to return his ball even before he hits it. Sometimes…

At work or at play, pattern recognition helps us make decisions without our conscious awareness of what’s going on behind the scenes. We think we rationally and carefully weigh options, especially when it comes to hefty business decisions. But mostly, our brains are busy behind the scenes before we even become aware.

Pattern recognition is much more complex that we imagine, involving more than 30 parts of the brain. It’s not like flicking through a picture book to find matches. It’s incredibly comprehensive and fast.

Each part of the brain focuses on a different type of input and looks for a memory of past inputs that matches it. An integrating function then takes the signals about what matches have been found, makes assumptions about missing bits of information, and then arrives at a point of view. And most of the time, pattern recognition works incredibly well.

But here’s what happens when it leads us to make faulty assumptions and bad decisions: sometimes we think we recognize something familiar and it’s actually quite different. When we assume something familiar is actually the same – but it’s not – we make erroneous judgments.

This is what I’m currently reading: Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You, by Sydney Findelstein, Jo Whitehead, Andrew Campbell. It’s got some great stuff about decision making and how the brain works to help us…or can hinder us.

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