First, Introducing the PFC
Evolutionary psychologist and social researcher Dan Gilbert, observed in one of his TED talks this fact. “It turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is an experience simulator. Pilots practice in flight simulators so that they don’t make real mistakes in planes. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life.” Those “experiences in their heads” are not placed there by magic or passed on through genetics. They are there as the result of a solution of time, exposure, and luck of the draw. Those experiences form “patterns” and are stored in our memory banks to be recalled at need. So, when a guy comes into the board room and says, “why don’t we combine smelly sardines and yogurt and sell it in the dairy section. The fish will naturally settle to the bottom, so we can call it ‘fish on the bottom’ yogurt”. Everybody else in the board room can recall the taste of smooth creamy sweet yogurt, then combine the smelly fishing stimulus of sardines, and, without creating the product, say, “No, no that will never sell.” (Sadly, this didn’t work as described and there was this exact product for a while.) Weather a stimulus resulted in pleasure or pain is crucial to the way just imagining that stimulus affects our behaviors.
What Exactly Is A “Pattern”?
Most people think of the word “pattern” and think it refers to something visual. Others, maybe they think of it being cyclical and/ or re-occurring. Both are true, but not the whole picture. The human being has five distinct senses. For sake of clarity, they are sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The last three are the “Intimate senses”. (This is my phrase used to describe taste, touch, and smell. Senses for which you must be in close, even intimate proximity to the sources of the stimulus. You cannot replicate them through the media.) You mind spends its time simultaneously probing though outside sense which it monitors through the senses for input. At the sme time it is issuing, most often subconscious, commands to your body. The ones that others can see and come to know about are called “behaviors”. For example, you feel an itch in your nose and you notice that you can’t smell as distinctly as well. You skin on you back reports the feeling of seat covers. You taste buds are dormant and not being used. You ears here your favorite radio station playing through speakers that are familiar to you. Your eyes confirm it. You are in the safety you have come to know as your car. Your mind issues the command, “pick it” which is a semi-conscious module of a program of other behaviors that are unconscious . A pattern of movements associated with cleaning the bugger from your nose is initiated. The car is an environmental pattern. Something you wouldn’t do in a business meeting, at the dinner table, especially on a date. The proof? Just as your finger starts to fish the inside of your nasal cavity, you look to your left and see an attractive monkey staring back at you. All the sudden the “abort” command is issued by the brain. You try to play it off as an “itch” on the outside. Awareness alone changed the environment.
What Is So Important About Recognizing Patterns?
We monkeys were not the strongest animals. Nor were we the agile or quick. We couldn’t change colors or blend in very well. So the more advance we got of a warning of danger, the better chance we had at getting away. But that meant we had to recognize those threats and react accordingly. We see a rustle in the bush, is it a rabbit or is it a bear. Using our nose, ears, and maybe even feeling of the ground, we make a determination based on what we have experienced before or our interpretation of what has been passed on to us by others. In this case, applying the wrong pattern can mean life or death in either way. That is a strong evolutional force. If we recognize it as a rabbit, it means we eat, and our behavior is very different than if we think it is a bear. In those early days, not missing a meal opportunity was as important as not getting mauled by a bear. Darwin awarded life and offspring to those who mastered the nuances of pattern recognition.
Loss of innocence
There is only one “first time”, one “first impression”, one occurrence without pattern. It has been commonly referred to as “virginity” in more than just the sexual nature. “A coaster virgin”, a “Karaoke Virgin”, a “Vegas Virgin” are socially understood terms today by even somebody who had never heard them. These are often used to refer to intense or exciting experiences that come with a little to a lot of anxiety. They mean you have not personally experienced them yet.
At the moment you first experience, say, your first kiss, there is a “snapshot” taken and committed to mind. You may have preconceived notions at what it might be like. Maybe even some rather romantic ones at that. But those are not “beliefs” in the core sense. But at that moment, a baseline is set. You are “experienced”. The sight of the person and the surroundings, the feel of all the things from the pressure to the temperature of the environment, the taste and smell of the person, the sound of the song on the radio are all recorded so that the PFC can later recall it at need. This is why anniversaries and specifics are sacred to some people. To get back and reinforce that pattern. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) That initial experience is the on by which your mind will reference from that moment so long as you mind still lives and remembers its past. Every moment preceding that was innocence. All the “preconceived notions” are wiped away.
This is not the post to get deep into the subject, but I will take just this moment to say that this is why past civilizations and philosophies demanded virginity to be part of marital unions. The belief that if you were both learning at the same time and if you were both had no other experiences to compare it to it, the want or desire to break the marriage and all the social problems that came with such an event, were minimized. So much more to say about this, but that will have to come later. But people who lose their innocence together and have much social pressure to remain together, have been shown to have more lifelong relationships.
Innocence, like time, cannot be taken back once experienced. It is a one way street. Is this not what every parent is talking about when they are stressing to wait till a child is older and hopefully with a better understanding of the consequences before they experience “Adult” aspects of life.
Reinforcement, deviation, and all out misconception.
After the “loss of innocence” you have a loose pattern. That pattern forms a “belief”. Every experience after that will either affirm or discount that belief by how well it fits that pattern. When you think about this, you understand how “prejudices” such as racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism can be both “learned”/ “environmental” and “natural”. These two things most people like to think of as opposed forces. They most definitely are not. (But again, that is another subject all together). Patterns that trigger behaviors of fear, alertness, hunger, desire, and love. Each sub category has sub-categories onto themselves. This harkens back to one of my first posts on “personality maps”. Your mind detects a pattern which it selects an overall “feeling”. Then that feeling is trimmed down until an a behavior is selected. The way we react to these patterns defines our personality. While none of us are born prejudice, we learn it from our environment, and then the more times we see that pattern, the more it affirms our belief.
While “prejudging the moving bush to be a threat might be useful and life preserving, it is not the whole story, and it can lead to wrong conclusions. Worse, the more we look for that pattern in places where it isn’t, the more wasted fear and energy we spend that is crucial to survival. This disconnect from reality is not a long lived trait in our evolutionary past or even in places where consequences for your actions are more directly connected. In the US we do a lot of things that would get us killed in more part uncivilized environments. When people look upon other people and assume them to be threats, trustworthy, or desirable based only on limited experience of them, mistakes can be made that cause conflict, turmoil, or even harm.
I called our brains “crude pattern recognition machines”, because while this all might seem well and good, even brilliant of idea, it is far from perfect. Better than any other so far? Sure. But, referring to Dan Gilbert in a different TED talk, he gave this example. Hundreds of millions of lottery tickets are played every year. Of those, tenths of tenths of percent are actually winners. However, who are the only ones we “sense”. The ones we see and hear about in most cases. Not even out “intimate senses”. The winners. Professor Gilbert surmised that if we had to endure the 10 million people who got up on stage and said, “I didn’t win” before we heard the last guy say, “I won!”, nobody would play the lottery. But because we see and sense the winners affirmed far more often than we do the losers, we have a very unrealistic understanding of our chances. Early in life, I met people, old at the time, working in low paying factory jobs who seriously banked on winning the lottery as a retirement plan.
We see this in political rhetoric. I could easily turn this into a post more deserving of my political blog “Logic and Politics” and will be in the book of that name. I will try to keep it conceptual here, but I think it is worth noting. Conservatives often harping about how people on welfare drive Hummers and eat steak every night. They are all on drugs. This would be harmless if people weren’t elected and policies weren’t set like the one in Florida that spent so much money on drug testing and actually found so few people actually were guilty of the pattern assigned to them. Liberals are not immune to this, though they like to think themselves to have “an open mind”. Usually that means so long as you agree with them. They often tout the validity of genetic linkage method. This approach of testing for the same gene in the case studies and attribute it to the same behavior. First, the problem with the possibility that there may be distant and/ or indirect relationships where not only genes but behaviors were passed down is a danger, it also doesn’t parse out behavioral associations with people who belong to the society and willing to submit themselves to a psychological experiment. One way I like to put it is this. In the case of two infant twins, given up at birth, they have one very profound thing in common, they were adopted out and by people who went to great lengths to get a child.
Parenting Of Patterns
Patterns recognition has far more uses than detecting threats and finding food. Nature granted no living things with immortality. The approach she took was to replicate the organism. It is the very point of every organism that ever lived, to find a way to sustainable copy itself. For humans, why our evolution spurred so far and so relatively fast, was because we of our ability to recognize patterns. I recently read an article that restated the things I have heard a million times before. That, generically, we seek mates that are symmetrical, healthy, and display traits of strength and fertility. In the past we learned what those meant by looking around our tribe and especially to our parents and family. Today, we have media, unrelated peers, and trial and error opportunities to figure them out for ourselves. (Not that we want to, but often those are the only choices we have left.) Using these criteria, we seek a mate that fits that pattern. Then, once we find one, we have expectation on how they should behave. Some people can handle and adapt to mild deviations from that behavior. Others are driven into cognitive dissonance when that person doesn’t match their preconceived notions. Even tolerance is a learned behavior. How we respond to patterns that don’t fit, how we can allow manipulation and deviations. WE are seeking for that perfect counterpart to replicate our pattern.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, our parents can be great suppliers of initial patterns. In fact they need to be aware of the great influence they have on a human being still in it “influential years”. Why do you think they call a baby “innocent”? Or “the innocence of childhood”? This is when a machine designed to recognize and categorize a pattern is experiencing the “recipes” for the first time. They are creating the flow charts. There are two ways of learning the appropriate actions. One, made famous by B.F Skinner, called “operand conditioning”. We react to a change in the environment, to the new set of stimulus. If our reaction brings positive and pleasurable results, we react to the same or like stimulus the same way. If we experience negative, punitive, or painful consequences as a result of our behavioral response, we strive not to repeat it. That presupposes that we know of other options. There can be a monkey wrench thrown into the “Skinner box” if we experience a rare occurrence of attention and/ or pleasure and pleasure from being hurt, behaving badly, or being absent. In this busy society where parents only have time to react to the obvious dangers and negative behaviors, this condition as become common for many generations. Likewise, if a parent micromanages every pleasure, rewards every slight success, they risk diminishing the effect of the reward and dooming the child to a life where they can never get the level of reward that the overcompensating parent once gave them. This is common in households where the parent grew up with very little. As an adult, the child recognizes the pattern of admiration and appreciation on the faces of those around them, but that pattern is not compensated with the equivalent reward. So we must strike a balance of letting children learn and experience and giving them aid and lessons.
The other way we “learn” is by mimicking the patterns that look like us. We start by mimicking our parents or caretakers. We learn that this sight, smell, touch, sound, even taste (think of men’s obsession with boobs here) brings us pleasure. But these “patterns” smile, we smile back and they show obvious signs of pleasure and give us more attention. For a newborn, holding a parents attention is crucial to survival. As we mimic those we see, we get a sense of what we are supposed to do. We like to reward animals for human like behavior when we see it, then like to think of pets as more than animals. (And they are, don’t get me wrong!) Newborns see us walk hear us talk, watch us eat, and they first learn of these behavioral options, then they want to try them out. This is why I personally preach doing nothing in front of your children you don’t want them to do. Not even newborns and toddlers. The classic, “where did you learn to do that?” “I learned it by watching you, ok?! I learned it by watching you!” applies. The first time you hear your kids swear, this becomes an issue. In a healthy parent child relationship, the parent wants them to mimic them. In fact, it is the point of life, they are doing what nature wants them too.
So what do we look for in our daughter’s pursuers? As men we look for ourselves. Think about the pattern as a parent that opens the door and sees the boy or girl there to date our daughter. (Many cultures skip the whole dating process. It leads to happier, less devastating life events, but this is in severe opposition to the tenants of our “Free will” philosophy.) Believe it or not, what you are doing at that moment, is math, how well will the copy represent you. Race is obviously the quickest way to match a pattern. We see their similar traits to our own and confirm they will make an adequate match. The mind makes assumptions, that in most other parts of the world are more accurate, about the person standing before us if they have the same racial traits. If race and social status are perceived to be different, either a deeper consideration must be explored, or the hostile “fight” mechanism kick in.
Artificial And Constant Rewards
Sadly, the pharmaceutical industry has come up with a $10 billion answer for the anxious and depressed condition by figuring out the chemicals that trigger the feeling of “Reward” and then putting them in the system, turning it on all the time. The problem is that “manic” behaviors occur when you “feel” rewarded for every behavioral action that comes to mind. Doesn’t matter about the negative consequences. Gambling, spending, adultery, risky sex, drugs and alcohol use, lashing out at those who anger, and of course, suicide are all “behaviors” we would normally fear. Our brains would not be “rewarded” for these behaviors and might actually recoil some well feelings just for thinking them. (Imagine banging your head against a wall when you screwed something up.) We normally would want to do those things because we could use our PFC to simulate the negative consequences and the pain for those actions. But SSRI/SNRIs allow the mind to feel reward for those actions.
Every Step You Take, Every Breath You Take
No not me, your brain is watching. Your existence is a continuous flow of interaction between the outside world through your senses and your brains decision making center. The stimulus, triggering your brain, to send response and behavioral commands to your body. Those behaviors can, in fact will, physically influence the environment and trigger new stimulus and new behavioral instructions. We couldn’t remember, and thus build anything if we weren’t able to store and recall memories of these patterns and respond to the stimulus we just influenced. This ongoing stream never stops. There is a majority of them that never leave the subconscious. When we use the word “think” we are often referring to actions and reactions were aware of, but those are just the tip of the iceberg. You brain has been watching everything you experience and only “selectively “ focusing your attention on the things that require attention.