Patterns in Pattern-Seeking

Because of the holiday weekend, my daughter has the day off from kindergarten, and we'll soon be driving down to the pumpkin maze in Half Moon Bay, California.

"I'd better buy two pumpkins," she said.

"Okay. What for?"

"Because a rat will eat the first one, and then I'll have another for me."

Amazingly, she'd recalled a long forgotten event. Last year, we came downstairs one morning to find her not-yet-carved pumpkin had been half-eaten by some sort of small rodent. It wasn't the only household item the rodent ate – my soccer shinguards and a few empty Gatorade bottles also got partially consumed. I still wear the mangled shinguards, but we got my daughter a new pumpkin to carve.

My daughter is five, and her brain is going through a year where it exhibits a relentless tendency to sort the world into categories and find patterns. So the rat who ate her pumpkin wasn't being considered a funny one-time event. From the N of 1, she saw it as a pattern and extrapolated: every year, rats will eat pumpkins, so if you buy a second pumpkin in advance, you'll be fine.

In other words, she saw a pattern where there was no pattern.

And now I see a pattern where there may, or may not, be a pattern. There's three parts to this almost-pattern, all of which deal with pattern-seeking itself. The first is my daughter and the rat.

The second is a recent paper from two scholars, Drs. Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine. They had college students read an absurdist story, a modified version of Kafka's "The Country Doctor." Already, the story is quite absurd, but the scholars added even more non-sequitors and bizarre illustrations. They titled it, "The Country Dentist." A second set of college students read a variation on The Country Doctor that had been altered to be far less absurdist, and more coherent, than the original. Immediately after reading the short story, the students played a simple game that tested their brains' skill at finding hidden patterns in strings of letters. Students who read the absurdist version found dramatically more patterns than students who read the non-absurdist version. In theory, the students' brains were trying to understand Kafka's story – trying to find the pattern in it, trying to make sense of it – and this primed their brains to look harder now for patterns elsewhere, such as in the strings of numbers.

The Proulx and Heine paper reminded me of Carol Dweck's seminal work, which is part three in my mind of the overall pattern here. We reproduced her experiment for a recent episode of Nightline, and it was interesting to watch a 5th grader named Jamison go through the experiment. Jamison was given three rounds of pattern-finding puzzles, called Raven's Matrices. Here's a very hard Raven's puzzle for you to contemplate for a moment. Above the line is the puzzle; below the line are eight possible answers to complete the puzzle:

Jamison's first round wasn't anything as difficult as that. His first round of ten puzzles was quite easy – appropriate for 3rd graders. This warmed up his brain, and he did fairly well – he got 7 of the puzzles correct. But I was actually surprised he didn't do better; it seemed like he was rushing, and choosing answers the minute he saw any pattern, which too often was the wrong answer. Then Jamison was given his single line of praise by Dweck's graduate student. "You got seven correct. That's really well. You must have worked really hard."

"Yeah I did," Jamison echoed. "I did work very hard."

(In fact, as an observer, I thought he hadn't worked hard enough.)

Then Jamison was given a really hard set of puzzles – appropriate for 7th graders. They were genuinely too hard for him. He couldn't find correct answers. He got only three correct. However, he did really concentrate – way harder than on the first round. And the hard puzzles were doing to his brain what the puzzle above probably does to yours: it was challenging him to look much harder for patterns. While he utterly failed, what happened next was interesting.

He was finally given a set of puzzles appropriate for 5th graders. Based on his past performance, (getting 7 right on the 3rd grade test, and 2 correct on the 7th grade test), one might have expected him to get about 5 right on the 5th grade test. But his brain was now super-primed to hunt for patterns, thanks to the hard round. He concentrated, and he got 9 correct – almost double what his past performance predicted.

So, is there a pattern in these three phenomenon? Or is my brain seeing a pattern that's not really there? I would suggest that the 7th grade Raven's test operated on Jamison much like The Country Doctor did on the college students – it primed the part of our brain that hunts for patterns.

And there's something valuable to learn here about how kids might learn more after they've been challenged with problems they can't actually solve.