The Power of Pattern-Seeking

Orion's Belt
Greeks map out the story of the Orion constellation.

We are naturally pattern-seeking creatures. When the ancient Greeks looked up at the stars, they invented a whole series of rich stories and mythologies to go with the constellations. These stories and patterns may on one hand seem arbitrary to us, but on the other hand it was an early way of remembering where the stars were positioned in a time when navigation by the stars were critical.

We have since found far more powerful uses of patterns. Some of you may know the story of how one man discovered the cause of cholera outbreaks in London. Before anyone knew about germs, these outbreaks were thought to be caused by bad smells.

Dr. John Snow thought otherwise. He investigated the outbreaks by mapping the location deaths with a black bar on a street map.

Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.
Dr. John Snow tracks cholera outbreaks on a map of London.

He discovered that cholera would kill people on one side of a street but not the other, or that one person would die blocks away from a cluster. How then could this be caused by bad smells?

Then by interviewing every family, he was able to find the commonality that each person drank from the same water pump. To test his theory, he took the handle off the water pump and the outbreak stopped.

What is important is not the map, but how he was able to identify the patterns and create a solution by creating the map.

Finding patterns and testing them allows us to understand the underlying cause, which often cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Much of human behaviour is that way. You can watch a chess player move a piece or a boxer throw a punch. You can even mimic the movement, but you will not have a clue why they do so or what they will do next. We can see the action, but not the thought behind the action.

Whether you are trying to understand how to be creative, innovative, or successful discover the principles behind the event, the pattern behind the isolated data points.