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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Back to the future?

Updated: Jan 9, 2023

For a moment, think of all the patterns in your life. The daily struggle against the alarm waking you up at 6:00 a.m. or perhaps the nightly struggle of putting your kid(s) to bed. Maybe it's amore simple pattern like the sun rising each day. Is it the 28-day lunar cycle or maybe your pet dog or cat recognizing what it means when you reach for that metal container? For those of a more literary mind, the Shakespearean sonnet is composed of 14 lines, each written in iambic pentameter and with the traditional rhyme scheme/ pattern of the English sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg. Whatever pattern you can think of, every organism on the planet knows and perhaps more accurately, recognizes, patterns or can make them. A,B, A,B, etc. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... But that recognition doesn't necessarily mean you're an "advanced" creature, no, it simply means that you're capable of remembering and reacting to stimuli... Don't believe me? Let's do a little exploration for a moment...

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College.

Consider the beautiful Eschscholzia californica, or California Poppy as it's informally know; the state flower of the eponymous state. This species of flower is very much like Goldilocks and wants the weather to be "just right" before it opens up and shows off its brightly colored interior. In bloom from February to September (in the Northern Hemisphere), this plant reacts to the daily rise and set of the sun, opening each day with the proper amount of sunlight. A simple pattern "recognition" created by the sun's daily movement. However, if it is cloudy out, or too cold or windy, this flower will remain shut. It "knows" the proper weather in which might best have a pollinator stop by and do its thing and will not open up until its preferred weather pattern is realized.

Sterling, the author's Russian Blue cat.

Maybe you have one of these goofballs (at right) patrolling your home. Yep, the not-so-elegantly-sitting, 11 pounds of gray fuzz is my cat, Sterling. (No, he doesn't sit like that all the time but it was the funniest picture I have of him.) Like many of the pets that we have, they get used to their humans' daily patterns. Sterling is known to patrol the kitchen when (human) food is being made, shaking his tail as he makes small circles next to the refrigerator. "Why?" you might ask. Well that's because we give him (cat-safe) tuna and after we open a can, we keep it in the fridge. And to him, if someone is in the kitchen, it must mean that one of us is in there to feed him... which obviously, isn't always the case much to his disappointment. Is this pattern recognition or is it operant conditioning? According to, operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behavior. He remembers his tuna coming from the fridge so he tries to get it again by continuing a pattern of behavior that got it for him in the past. Even though his behavior doesn't always get him the food he is clearly looking for, that doesn't stop him from trying.

These are two examples of non-human pattern-recognition but what about us humans? As I write this, there are three students sitting in our study hall (this was back in February of 2020), where they're doing their distance learning. But what if they were in school? Think back to a time when you were in school as they are. Bound by a pattern of five 40-ish-minute classes before lunch, followed by three more 40-ish-minute classes until that last bell that set you free for the day. You and they learn that pattern and created your own to help you navigate the day. But for a moment, think back, WAY BACK, to our ancient and very distant ancestors. The ones that were just learning to walk upright, the ones who recognized the same daily patterns of light and darkness or hunger and foraging. But for a moment, let's stop and think about what it was like for these early hominids to look up at the moon each night and start to understand that it was changing on an almost-daily basis and have one of the most profound questions cross through their primitive mind: Why?

Moon phase cycle. Image courtesy Old Farmers Almanac;

We know that it is simply the rotation of the moon on its axis that causes these changes in appearance. But those early nomadic hominids, the thing in the sky that changed its shape continually changed its shape over the course of time, eventually repeating its pattern must have been something worth paying attention to, which we infer they did. But when the brains of these early humans evolved enough to start thinking more analytically is when, what I call "the big leap", happened. That leap could be considered the first step to modern humans, and me sitting here writing this and you sitting there, reading this.

Next time you wonder about something or notice that there's a pattern of your child(ren) having to use the bathroom the first time you tell them to do their homework, stop for a moment and think how you're reacting to that pattern or think back to your WAY distant ancestor who looked up at the moon and thought, "Why is that changing?" The innate curiosity within all humans can be readily traced back to those early humans that were JUST being able to look up at a pattern and wonder why it was happening, rather than just reacting to a pattern.

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