Patternicity and Agenticity

Michael Shermer[1] describes the brain as a belief engine his thesis being that belief comes first and then reasons are gathered to confirm the belief. There are 2 main processes at work in belief creation:

  • patternicity – as we receive sensory information the brain tries to make sense of it; it looks for patterns. It does this at an unconscious level and is very good at it. We experience patternicity as intuition, a gut-feeling about something that we can’t quite explain. Some people we instantly take a shine to, others we are wary of. On occasion we may experience an ‘atmosphere’, a positive vibe or maybe something more ominous. The unconscious brain has linked together sights, sounds and smells, of which the conscious mind is unaware, and found meaning.
  • How does this happen? Most likely it is because there are neurons that exist in more than one cluster. When these neurons fire, there is the potential for other neurons in separate clusters to fire – and if they do, a connection is made and a pattern recognised. The 7-item[2] capacity of our conscious working memory means that we rely on the unconscious mind to make these connections. The unconscious mind works at much more granular level and, in addition to attending to information of which the conscious mind is completely unaware, it is able to make connections without requiring logic. In a sense, the conscious mind requires a framework to make the connection whereas the unconscious mind simply requires neurons to fire. Unfortunately, since the unconscious mind is working solely on the basis of firing neurons, it can find connections and patterns which don’t really exist. It can lead us to misinterpret the gestures, looks and actions of others. We put 1 and 1 together and get 3 and this affects the next process.

“Let me suggest that there is no concept, no fact in education, more directly important than this: the brain is, by nature’s design, an amazingly subtle and sensitive pattern-detecting apparatus.”[3]

  • agenticity – if a pattern exists, the conscious brain looks for a reason why, a cause. But it brings biases to this process. It will tend to err on the side of caution because there is less risk in assuming threat when there is none than the reverse, assuming no threat when there is. We see intent where there is none. So innocent gestures and looks can become transformed in our minds into something more sinister.

Together these two processes help you to understand the world. Early experiences lead to tentative interpretations for which the brain seeks confirmation and these interpretations harden into beliefs about the way the world works. Unfortunately because of the flaws in the processes of patternicity and agenticity, we develop a skewed view of the world, as we shall see in later.

[1] The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

[2] “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by George Miller. Later research has shown that when information is unfamiliar or complex, the capacity may be even lower.

[3] Leslie A Hart, Human Brain and Human Learning