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The Brain's Search For Patterns

Adapted from Tero's Outstanding Personal Achievement Participant Manual


In an effort to make sense of complicated information, the brain has a built in pattern-o-sensor. As it processes new and complex data, it instinctively tries to make sense of it all by looking for the connections-how the pieces fit together, what they have in common. Without the ability to find patterns, we would not be able to drive safely (all red lights indicate "stop"), work productively (when the phone rings, someone is calling you), or interact effectively with people (when meeting someone, it is appropriate to greet them).

In its search for patterns, the brain may overlook information that does not fit the pattern it is looking for. It may also assume information that fits the pattern, but may or may not be part of the situation. For example, if you find yourself in a dark alley, by yourself in the middle of the night in a bad part of town, your brain may assume you are in danger, even if you are not.

Pattern-finding is a sustainable technique. However, it can lead us down the wrong path occasionally-particularly when it comes to people. People, unlike stoplights, are not predictable. Moreover, we are all individuals and (particularly in America), we like to be treated as such. Overlooking or assuming too much about people may lead us to incorrect assumptions and be offensive to those with whom we are communicating... or miscommunicating.

Consider the following examples:

An American is flattered with an invitation to present in a Latin country. In their effort to learn about the audience they will speak to, they visit with an employee of the organization they will be presenting to. As they attempt to communicate with this individual, it soon becomes evident that the person does not understand them. In attempt to clarify, the American speaks louder and louder until they are practically shouting at the individual. Onlookers begin to ask themselves if the rude American is aware that the person is not deaf. The American does not stop to consider that in the Latin culture of social delicacy, the volume of their voice is perceived as quite obnoxious and hostile.

Every year, a group of female scientists are flown into the United States to partner with fellow scientists, enhance their knowledge of new techniques and technologies and network. Each of the women is an accomplished scientist in her own right. Some speak English proficiently, while others understand it well, but struggle with American "slanguage." As they attended one of the many presentations on their schedule, the presenter peppered her presentation with American idioms. For example: "As a general rule of thumb, when we are behind the eight ball, the buck stops with the manager." The audience members quickly pulled out their English dictionaries as they tried to understand the presentation. After a while, many gave up and began talking amongst themselves or reviewing other notes. The presenter had lost her audience's attention because she assumed that since she knew the idioms, everyone knew them.

In each of these examples, the speaker assumed too much of the audience. The speaker's mistaken assumption is that the audience member fit the same pattern that he/she fits and will therefore hear the message just as he/she would. However, because the audience does not fit the same pattern as the speaker, the message sent was not the message received.

How can we avoid the challenges posed by this natural occurring phenomenon that helps the brain make sense of the millions of bits of data it processes? Challenge your assumptions. Instead of defaulting to everyday unconscious patterns, look for opportunities to challenge those patterns. In doing so, you'll expand your horizons, improve your relationships with others and maybe even learn something.


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