Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Part I: Pattern Recognition
Over the past few months, we’ve been discussing the various skills needed for effectively operating in a world characterized by information and accelerating change, and I’ve been assembling these ideas into a framework for a new thought architecture. This post will be the first in a 12 part series, and draws its influences from the fields of Futures Studies, Complexity Science, Systems Theory, Cybernetics, Social Network Analysis, Knowledge Management, common sense, and exploration into my own thinking.
All of the skills I’ll be covering are already in practice in our brains – it’s just a matter of becoming more aware of them so we can sharpen them. I imagine them all happening concurrently and all reinforcing each other, creating constant feedback loops that raise consciousness and build intelligence. Though I’ll be identifying 12 areas, they’re mostly components of each other, so we’ll see how we might expand or refine these as the series rolls out.
- :: Pattern Recognition :: -
The ability to spot existing or emerging patterns is one of the most (if not the most) critical skills in intelligent decision making, though we’re mostly unaware that we do it all the time. Combining past experience, intuition, and common sense, the ability to recognize patterns gives us the ability to predict what will happen next with some degree of accuracy. The better able we are to predict what will happen, the more intelligent we become. So, you might say that the purpose of intelligence is prediction.
Let’s look at an example:
Imagine you’re driving home from work, and you have several different routes available to you. You may know that Route A will invariably get you stuck behind that school bus, Route B will put you in dead-stop traffic with the commuters just getting off the train, and Route C is furthest miles-wise, but will get you home fastest because of better traffic flow.
You probably don’t think these options through each time you go home, because it would be a waste of mental energy. You’ve already gone through the discovery process to know that Route C is best at a particular time of day on particular days of the week.
A further extension of that example is the process of getting home once that optimal route is selected. If you’re like me, you may have arrived home many times only to realize you have no conscious recollection of how you got there. Sure, you know you took Route C, but were you really thinking about each turn you made, or was your brain on “auto pilot?”
Again, it wouldn’t make sense for you to have to think about it each time. Instead, you’re probably ambiently aware of your location, that you make a right where that big tree is, a left at the pizza shop, and another right once you pass Bob’s house. Your brain is recognizing patterns in your environment.
In the same way that pattern recognition works in the driving example, it’s working every time your senses take in information. Whether it’s something you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell, at the same moment as you are having the current experience, your brain is comparing it to things you already know, and seeing how it fits. If it has a reference point, your brain files it away as a correlation or similarity or tangent; if it’s a novelty, your brain is challenged and will either construct a new model for understanding and processing this information, save it for later consideration, or simply reject and discard the information.
(This next stage of the thinking process, of choosing how to integrate information and give it meaning, has been referred to as “sensemaking.” Knowing which information to integrate and which to disregard is a skill in and of itself – as Shirky put it, “it’s not information overload, it’s filture failure.” But this stage is also a place where many of us miss growth opportunities, because it is often easier to reject information we don’t immediately understand rather than going through the effort of creating a new mental model. This makes me think of people who struggle with adapting to change or write off potentially insightful experiences as ‘coincidences.’ More on sensemaking later in the series.)
The point is, there are strong and weak signals all around us, patterns, which indicate a change has happened, is happening, or has the potential to happen. Though there will still be wild cards and black swans – low-probability, high-impact events – the ability to anticipate and adapt to changing conditions in the environment are hallmarks of intelligent people and organizations.
Though some research suggests that over 99.99% of the processing in the brain happens at a subconscious level, and is therefore beyond our “control,” I’ve found that simply being aware of my thought process has improved my ability to recognize patterns. For me, mindfulness and metacognition (more skills in this series) have been powerful tools in helping to expand my cognitive capacity.
So, I’ve described how I see pattern recognition operating at an individual level, but I’m even more interested in knowing how this applies to building collective intelligence. We’ve been exploring different ways of encouraging collaboration and mind-expansion within a networked environment, like with our Junto idea, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how identifying patterns might play a more significant role in the projects and initiatives we’re building together.
nautilis image from Designing better futures blog