Our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines. Most of our mental processing, however complex, derives from simple pattern-recognition primitives. Generally pattern-recognition is thought of as recognizing a pattern amidst noise, like the silhouette of a tiger obscured by reeds, branches, and shadows. But pattern-recognition also can be thought of as spotting differences between patterns. The pattern of the weeds versus the pattern of the tiger. We can either focus on similarities between patterns or we can focus on differences but we seem to have difficulty focusing on both simultaneously.
Think of it like the picture to the right. What do you see? If you see a rabbit facing right, then for whatever reason your pattern-recognition system is more programmed to spot rabbits. But if you first see a duck facing left, then you’re more attuned to look for duck patterns. With this particular image, you can switch back and forth between the rabbit and the duck quite easily, but it’s extremely hard to see them both at the same time.
Since everything we think is essentially built upon pattern-recognition, this kind of selectivity applies to everything we think, no matter how complex. We can see the world with God or we can see the world without God. Both seem obvious to the observer if their pattern-recognition system is tuned to find that pattern. But the other view can seem just as obvious to us simply by flipping a switch in our brains. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that both perceptions are equally real in fact. If the image above is actually a photo of a duck, and seeing it as a rabbit does not make it a rabbit.
Similarly, we can either focus on the similarities between two patterns, or we can focus on the differences. It just depends which one we’re tuned to look for, like the rabbit or the duck. And even if the differences are incredibly minor compared to the similarities, the differences are all we can see if that is what we expect to see. In this case, there actually IS no difference at all between the duck and the rabbit, but we are convinced that they are completely different.
Social training makes us hypersensitive to recognizing differences in people – even when there are virtually no differences at all. We see it as a particular social good to notice, acknowledge, and celebrate the differences between people and their groups. But while this is good, it also tunes our neural networks to perceive a very skewed view of the world. If carried to an extreme this can be more divisive than unifying.
For example, when I was in the Peace Corps, their very well-intentioned cultural awareness training tuned our pattern recognition systems to be hyper-aware of what were often tiny cultural differences. The result was that this made most volunteers quite frightened and apprehensive. It made them extremely worried that they were venturing into some alien civilization where the people were so foreign that any tiny inadvertent slip on their part could result in an international incident. I proposed half-seriously to the Peace Corps leadership that they needed to offer “similarities training” to reassure the volunteers that the Africans were in fact 99.999% just like them and that while the .001% of differences should be understood and recognized, the similarities far out-weighted any differences.
I saw this again when I was out working in my village in rural South Africa. There was a very sweet local Afrikaans woman who had volunteered in the Black community her entire life. Still, she asked me quite sincerely one day what it was like to actually “live with them.” I asked her what she meant. She stated what was obvious to her, “but they are so different!” I pressed her for specifics and all she could finally think to say was “Well for one thing they eat pap!”
Now, pap is the corn version of mashed potatoes. That was the big difference that made life amongst them inconceivable to her? But to this woman, so hyper-sensitive to differences, this was totally understandable given the way our brains work. Her neural network was so focused on incredibly minor differences that she couldn’t see that the Black folk she worked with every day were exactly the same as her in almost every possible way.
I often tell another story. When I lived in India my pattern recognition machine got gradually tuned to see everything around me as dirty and disgusting. My attitude plummeted for a good long while. All that made it through my pattern-recognition filters was the duck, quacking and dirty and fowl. Then one day I suddenly had an apparently random “attitude adjustment” and in the blink of an eye my pattern-recognition system flipped to see the rabbit and suddenly everything around me was beautiful and inspiring. All those same people who disgusted and repelled me before were now proud and happy folk that I wanted to engage with. These changes can happen gradually in imperceptible increments like me descent into negativity or instantaneously as happened in my attitude adjustment.
That story illustrates the tremendous power of our unconscious pattern recognition programming. Reality doesn’t change but you are conditioned to see either a rabbit or a duck. Like the picture, even though reality doesn’t actually change, you are either convinced that there is evidence of god all around you or that there is no evidence whatsoever. The African villagers don’t change but you see strange alien creatures, or you see regular folk just like you. The Indian streets don’t change but you either see only the smelly cow-dung or only the pretty wildflowers. One day your soulmate can do no wrong, the next moment everything he or she says or does is incredibly offensive.
What you see and think all depends on the patterns that your brain is conditioned to recognize and allow through your perceptual filters. Attitudes are formed by perceptions and perceptions are filtered by the biases imposed by our innate pattern-recognition machines. Science trains our brains to identify real patterns, not merely imagined constellations amongst the stars. And when it comes to your fellow man, while recognizing differences is important, don’t become conditioned to imagine that those small differences outweigh the overwhelming similarities that connect us.
Read more about this topic in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).