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The Tinkered Mind
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August 31st, 2020
A pattern can only be recognized if it has repeatable and reproducible parts. The main magic of a song is the fact that it’s so repetitive. Not just the beat is occurring at regular intervals, but whole melodic patterns are repeated: hence the ‘chorus’ of a song. It’s no surprise that the chorus of a song is generally the most pleasing and liked part. Interestingly, the more repetition we have, the less information is actually present. Think about a song which is simply the chorus played four times. If the same song were to be rewritten to only have the chorus played twice with two unique verses, does it become more interesting? More pleasurable?
Hard to say for sure, but it’s certainly fair to say that the version with two unique verses conveys more than the version with just a chorus repeated over and over.
The way we garner meaning and make sense of the world has to do with this strange tension between randomness and repetition. We are pattern recognition machines. Perhaps more so than any other creature that has ever existed. We aren’t just Pavlovian in our ability to sense a pattern, we are driven, curious detectives when it comes to the matter. But of course, too much pattern and suddenly we can begin to lose interest. The same exact groundhog day occurring over and over with no variance is bound to drive anyone mad. It’s the variance we inject into the regular and the routine that isn’t just interesting, it stresses patterns into new, more complex shapes.
In an abstract way, this is a description of learning. Our brains are highly repetitive machines. Neurons all fire based on input of other neurons. From a bird’s eye view, this is simply a vast game of telephone with neurons talking to one another. Of course there is the varied input we get from the senses to stir up these firing patterns, and of course we might wonder about whether or not the brain can actually generate its own randomness, but more interesting is to think about the experience of learning.
Learning is a conscious and willful disruption of previous ways of thinking. We quite literally have to rip apart our repetitive thinking and reorganize it into a new pattern that is consistent with the subject we are trying to understand. We continue this somewhat painful reorganization until we hit upon a pattern that is in accord with the subject.
This subtle tension between pattern and randomness is what drives us. We experience it as the tension between the boredom of repetition and the pain of confusion. We don’t enjoy either and often settle for one in order to avoid the other. But of course, diving head first into the experience of confusion is the only thing that is going to really alleviate boredom. Neither are ideal, but the combination of both keeps us moving forward.