Pattern Power: Coincidence in Reality and Fiction

A blue leather purse that resembles a face, with grommet eyes and a zipper mouth. Text: Something for Sunday; September 15, 2019; Pwttern PowerThe blue purse in the image belongs to a friend of mine. Can you see why I wanted to take its picture? It’s got a face! That face represents two separate things about how people deal with coincidence, in reality and in fiction.

How do people handle coincidence in reality? All too well, I’m afraid. The human brain is an extremely powerful pattern detector. This enables us to perceive things under extreme conditions, which is very useful. However, when you crank that ability up too far, you reach the point where you see meaningful patterns even when they aren’t there, something called pareidolia. It’s pareidolia that leads you to see a face when you look at the blue purse. One of the patterns we are especially good at seeing is a face. It doesn’t take much to trigger face recognition; this is behind the original use of emoticons in text, where it just takes a colon and a parenthesis to get us to see a smile.  🙂  I find this fascinating, and have written about it before. Our amazing ability to see and recognize faces is a topic of a lot of interest among cognitive scientists, who study how face perception works and how it sometimes goes wrong. You can learn more about it in this video.

More generally, this means we have a tendency to believe in the patterns we perceive, even when they are not real. Just because two things happen together (co-incidence) doesn’t necessarily mean there is any real connection between them. Random coincidences happen all the time. We don’t like to believe that, though.

Animated character from The Incredibles saying, "Coincidence? I think NOT!"My message for dealing with patterns in real life is to be skeptical about them. Otherwise, you’re like the man who plugged in his shaver at the exact moment that all the power went out on the Eastern seaboard, and is now convinced he caused the blackout. Or the misguided parent who notices that a child was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after getting a vaccination. Children are (or should be) getting lots of vaccinations during their first few years, and that’s also the time when autism is generally diagnosed. The two events simply happen together (co-incidence), but one does not cause the other.

In fiction, though, things are different. One of the big differences between stories and real life is that stories are supposed to make sense. Everything needs to be linked together by chains of cause and effect. In his book on writing, Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig says refers to this as echoes. Important events should reverberate back and forth throughout the story, so that they feel fitting and inevitable when they finally happen. Otherwise, you are in danger of creating a Deus ex Machina, where something waves a wand and solves all the problems without a good reason. This can sometimes be pulled off successfully, but generally it is death to a satisfying conclusion. It’s okay to use coincidence to get a story started (the main character opens the wrong door at the wrong time, and sees something they were not supposed to see). It can also work for making the character’s problems worse (they left their diary where it’s found by the plumber, who turns out to be a bad guy). However, using it to solve the character’s problem at the end is almost always a bad idea (when running from a murderous assailant, they open a random door and stumble across a stash of guns and ammo that has no reason to be there).

Here’s an example. I remember staying up late as a teenager reading The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chrichton, caught up in the drama and terror of a deadly extraterrestrial microbe that killed people in minutes. Chapter after chapter, page after page, heroic people fought desperately to stop the lethal invasion. Then, in the last pages, we learn that the microbe has now mutated into a form that no longer threatens anyone. Problem solved! This felt like cheating to me. If nobody had done anything in response to the initial threat, it would have just disappeared on its own. Why would it just happen to evolve into something harmless? Why would every bit that was dangerous just … disappear? I couldn’t see a reason for the victory at the end, so it didn’t satisfy me. A gripping, fascinating tale fizzled out at the end.

To put this all together: We humans are always looking for patterns. In real life, this can lead us to believe in things that aren’t real. On the other hand, we know a story isn’t real, but if it doesn’t satisfy that pattern hunger we again get frustrated. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind. My readers can’t turn real life off, but they can certainly quit reading my book if I don’t give them a pattern that works.

Can you think of stories with endings that didn’t satisfy you? Did they rely too much on coincidence?

What the Creepy Faucet Face Tells Us About Ourselves #photochallenge

FaucetFaceDo you see the creepy face here? With its malevolent slanting eyebrows and its ominous pursed mouth? I’ll bet you do. And that’s something called pareidolia: the tendency to see patterns, especially faces, where the stimulus is random or accidental.

This tendency is behind all kinds of things, from the imaginary face on Mars to the toasted-cheese Virgin Mary. As a cognitive scientist, I’ve been fascinated by pareidolia for years, and have a personal collection of over 200 images with accidental faces in them, including this faucet photo I took last weekend in a public restroom. Why do we see images so easily, and why are faces the most common? How does this tendency help and hinder us in our daily lives?

Humans are great pattern detectors. It’s one of the things we do best: we notice patterns in what we see, hear, feel, or experience in any way. You could say that our pattern detectors are cranked up to 11. We are especially good at spotting faces, starting from the first few days of life. As soon as babies get any control over their eyes, they seek out faces, and, according to this Stanford research, by the age of four months their brains are processing faces at nearly adult levels while they still have a hard time telling other basic shapes apart. It’s kind of like that Facebook photo process that outlines faces and asks you to tag them. It’s always scanning images for faces, just like we do, which can lead to some pretty hilarious examples of artificial pareidolia. There’s good evidence that there’s a specific part of the brain in the temporal lobe that’s specialized for recognizing faces, called the fusiform face area. So, yeah, when we say we’re wired to see faces, it’s really true.

How does this tendency help or hurt us? One theory is that it is an evolutionary advantage to note that the play of the light, the movement of the grasses, and the sounds in the dark are similar to what I noticed when a tiger took out my buddy last week, so let’s get out of here. If the similarity detector is cranked up too high I might think there’s a tiger when there isn’t one, but that’s the safe mistake to make, much better than not recognizing tiger signs when it’s really there. If we see archers and bears in the random arrangement of stars in the night sky, what harm does that do? It’s the same talent that allows us to see the nearly-invisible tracks that lead us to our prey. The problems happen when we become too invested in the reality of imaginary patterns. No, the Martians did not carve a mountain into the semblance of a human face, and no, the three people on my street who all had different forms of cancer doesn’t prove that there’s a serious environmental disaster here. Children get lots of (extremely valuable) vaccinations in their first few years, and sometimes they get sick. We see a pattern there, and people may cling to belief in that pattern even when it’s not real. (No, people, vaccinations do not cause autism.) It’s just a case of seeing a pattern that’s not there, a creepy face in a bathroom faucet. Pareidolia

I didn’t think this post had anything to do with writing, but of course it does. Readers will find any pattern that’s even hinted at (pareidolia!) and then feel cheated if the pattern isn’t fulfilled. The main character just paid for his latte with exact change? Hmmm, wonder what that’s about. Oh, look, he also had the right change for the parking meter. Maybe it’s a sign that he’s an overly-compulsive planner who made sure before he left the house he had exactly the change he would need. Or perhaps he has a magic purse that provides just the money he reaches for. The reader is now investing energy in tracking that pattern to fruition. This can be considered a corollary to the law of Chekhov’s gun; nothing should ever be inserted in fiction that isn’t needed. Unnecessary bits and pieces just spark patterns that leave readers frustrated when they don’t pan out.

Pareidolia. Love it. Respect it. Use it. Beware of it. Learn from it. And when you see a face in the clouds, just enjoy what it’s telling you about your amazing pattern-recognizing brain.

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Creepy.”