Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 22, 2019


Your brain on patterns

"Do you see the arrow?" husband Art kept goading me.

This was last fall when we were traveling to New Mexico to visit daughter Katie and son-in-law Matt. We had seen quite a few Federal Express trucks and after a bit, he asked the question. I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about and told him so. That just seemed to encourage him. He said if I worked at it, I’d see the arrow. But it wasn’t happening.

When the next one appeared, he asked again. Still nothing!

I finally told him to either explain or quit asking. He stopped it ... sorta. He said nothing when a truck would appear, but would point at it.

A few days later at Katie and Matt’s place, a Fed Ex truck stopped to deliver a package. Art was outside fixing some lights on the garage and I was the helper. As the driver rounded the back of the truck, Art yelled out, “Show her the arrow!”

He grinned, so I knew it wasn’t the first time someone had asked.

Once he pointed it out, I wondered how I ever missed it.

Do you see the arrow?

The human eye is a great little camera, but it is the brain that does the real work. It takes the input from all of our senses and, well, makes sense out of it.

But we have too many things to deal with in a normal day, so our brain uses shortcuts. Nobel-prize winning psychologist Danny Kahneman refers to the kind of thinking we do when we balance our checkbook as slow thinking. But usually we use what he calls fast thinking - we use a sort of pattern recognition.

When we are handed a cup at a fast-food restaurant, it may be a slightly different size, color or design on the side than the one we were given yesterday at a different place, but we never think, “Gee ... is that a cup?” Our brains see enough similarities with the 3,972 cups we’ve used before in our lives that they instantly recognize number 3,973 as a cup.

But it isn’t always right. Art’s brother Tommy repeated a story last Christmas from World War II. Tommy, their father Tom and their uncle were returning from Upper Michigan with a truckload of blueberries. It was a 600-mile trip and they slept and drove in shifts. This night while Tommy was driving, he saw a small white light appear on the road ahead. Getting car parts was hard during the war, so it was common to see cars with only one headlight and Tommy thought that was what it was.

By chance, Tom awoke and looked out the windshield. What he saw was an old car directly in front of them traveling very slowly in the same direction as they were with the red lens broken out of the single taillight.

He yelled at Tommy to stop and simultaneously pulled the emergency brake. The truck went into the ditch and turned over while the old vehicle continued down the road.

The fully-loaded truck could have killed anyone in the old car had it not left the road. A bit later, a bunch of fellows heading to work at a local quarry came along in a bus. They stopped and righted the truck. The only thing lost was some time and a half-case of berries.

But not all outcomes of mistaken patterns are so benign. Cases have occurred when someone awakes at home at night, hears a noise and reaches for a gun. Not expecting a family member to be up, a loved one mistaken for an intruder is shot.

I thought of this because of a picture our friend Hervé recently sent via e-mail. It was a picture of the old church and presbytery in his home village in France - a place we have visited during each of the last five years. But the picture was taken from an unusual location. Hervé commented, "Just forwarding this nice picture."

Now that sentence can be taken two ways and for some reason, Art opted for the sarcastic interpretation ... meaning, “Man, look what happened!” And since the church and presbytery looked as he remembered them, he began looking for the “problem” - and quickly identified some black and white gravel-like material flowing from the road next to the church.

Art asked me, "What is that stuff flowing down the hill?"

I had no answer, so Art wrote to Hervé to ask what it was. Art was doubly confounded when the reply gave no explanation.

There were a couple more exchanges until it was sorted out. The camera had been set on a wall and what appeared to be gravel was just the top of the uneven wall. By Art asking me the way he had, I was primed to see it the way he did.

An old riddle goes like this: Three men go to a hotel and are charged $90 for a room for the night. Discovering later he overcharged them, the desk clerk sends the bellboy to the room with five one-dollar bills. The bellboy cannot split that evenly, so he gives each one bill and keeps two. So they each paid $29 for a total of $87 and with the $2 the bellboy kept, the total is $89. Where did the other dollar go?

If you don’t know, it is because the story was framed to cause you to look at it in a certain way - your brain accepted the pattern it was given.


In the left image, the arrow points to what Art had seen as something black and white - like gravel mixed with snow - flowing down the hillside. In reality, it was just the top of a stone wall the camera had been set on. In the right image, the Federal Express logo "arrow" is circled in blue. Oh, and the riddle? The $2 is part of what the men paid for the room - part of the $87. If the $3 returned is added to the $87 the men paid, the total is $90.



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