Photo credit: Justin Swett

The world is a sea of chaos, yet our brains somehow make sense of it all. Sights! Sounds! Textures! Scents! A jumble of stimuli relentlessly barrages our sensory systems in a continuous manner, day in and day out. Somehow, we categorize it all with ease. More often than not, we take it for granted. How many times have you walked down the street and perked up when your nose detected a nearby café or laundromat just by the scent of coffee or fabric softener?

It wouldn’t be crazy to say that pattern recognition is the primary function of our brain, and the one that continues to help with cognitive development. Researchers have found that both humans and animals have critical periods in their development for acquiring certain pattern-recognition skills, for instance sight or language understanding. Young birds that are deprived of hearing other birds singing are unable to learn normal birdsong later in life. Similarly, cortical blindness (blindness due to damage to the visual area in the brain’s occipital cortex) can cause a person with healthy eyes to be functionally blind. Simply put, our brain constantly takes raw sensory input and turns it into recognizable things we can reason about, and under normal conditions we develop special-purpose brain “hardware” for these abilities.

It’s fascinating to experience the speed at which a physicist or mathematician looks at an equation and understands it meaning, or does back-of-the-envelope numerical calculations to make a rough estimate about a quantity — through practice these professionals have built pattern-matching capabilities that make these calculations automatic. In an earlier post, Jeevan wrote about “perceptual learning” – a related approach to concept-learning that suggests that the pattern-matching parts of our brains can be harnessed to make more high-level, “forebrain” activities like mathematics more efficient.

In business, we look for patterns to help us estimate and forecast. Legal professionals use precedent and behavioral patterns to help establish motive. City planners take police response times, socioeconomic data and other variables to plan crime reduction efforts and counter blight. Recognizing patterns plays an integral part in understanding the world, and helps us establish a base of growing and validated assumptions from sorted inputs and correlated data. Venture capitalists talk about “pattern matching” as one of their key skills. Having been involved with many businesses during their career, they can quickly recognize connections between a new startup and examples from the past in order to spot a business model with growth potential or problems ahead.

Recognizing patterns is useful in our modern world in all kinds of ways, yet pattern recognition is one of the things that engineers struggle to get computers to do well. After we “teach” our e-mail clients by marking a few fraudulent emails as spam, they become more successful spotting and deleting future spam based on patterns in the e-mails we identified. Speech and face-recognizers are getting better all the time, but they’re still no match for a person experiencing the same input. (Take the recent example of Linne Ha, who was profiled earlier this week in a piece on Google’s attempts to master voice-based search).

Ed Adelson's famous Checkershadow Illusion -

Illusions are an example of the pattern-matching parts of our brains being activated by stimuli in a way that triggers an incorrect or surprising response. Some of my favorite optical illusions are patterns that appear to be in motion everywhere except where you’re actually looking, or phantom dark spots that appear at the intersections of lines in a grid. An interesting audio illusion is the Shepard Tone, which seems to continually rise in pitch, forever. The tone isn’t actually rising continuously, because if it was, it would quickly rise above the frequency that our ears can hear. One reason these illusions are fun is that they allow us to understand ourselves better, by exposing the workings (and vulnerabilities) of our perceptual and pattern-recognition capabilities. Illusions are like mini-games which challenge the observer to derive some pattern from the carefully constructed stimulus.

Some games help children recognize and understand patterns. Tangram is an ancient example – the goal is to build a particular shape by arranging smaller individual shape fragments made of wood or plastic. My approach to Tangram is to keep forming different compound shapes quickly by moving the pieces with my hands, then visualize how those intermediate shapes would combine into larger ones. Arranging the fragments and looking at the results helps me think about possible solutions.

Set Cards

This is explained by a principle known as distributed cognition – the theory of how objects help us think (more about this in a future post). A more modern example of a pattern-oriented game is Set, a card game where players look for patterns of sameness or different-ness in shapes with the goal of making sets of three. Games like Odd Man Out prompt players to break down objects into “features” and discover similarities and differences between them. Even poker players look for patterns in other players’ behavioral tics, or tells, to help them determine bluffs and whether to raise or fold. The reason these games are fun is that they exercise the pattern-matching “hardware” in our brains – we enjoy being challenged!

The ‘distributed-ness’ of Sifteo cubes is key to developing games that help both kids and adults understand patterns and improve perception. By smearing data and information across three or more displays, Sifteo cubes challenge players to see disparate images, text and other data in their place within a gestalt, or whole. In No Evil Monkeys, players are presented with fragmented tiles across multiple cubes and must re-arrange the tile pieces back into their respective cubes to put together three whole images. Chroma Shuffle (probably our most addictive puzzle game across all ages) requires players to rotate and neighbor several cubes to eliminate dots based on shapes and colors. Playing with up to six cubes increases the possibilities for pattern-based games, with more data for the player to scrutinize and find relationships between.

The ability to understand patterns is a valuable professional and life skill. Without it, we’d have an impossible time establishing order from chaos and improving efficiency by creating groupings and routines. Our belief is that Sifteo games will refine pattern detection skills across all ages, in a fun and engaging way.

How about you? What are some games you play to hone your pattern-recognition and perception skills? We’d love to hear your thoughts!