Welcome to the Matrix

People are pattern-searching engines. Take those M&M’s from the previous blog. Whether you like it or not, you’re looking for a pattern. Someone said to me: ‘There must be a pattern in it, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have put the picture on your blog’. The belief that there are patterns in almost everything is embedded deep in our system. Whole websites exist for people to share their pictures of clouds, buildings, dustbins and so on, all with faces on them. 

Image from the Flickr collection: Places with Faces

This raises two questions:  Why are we so ardently looking for patterns? And more importantly: why is that (sometimes) a bad thing?

The first question: why are we looking for patterns?

A common theory goes like this: in the past, when we lived on the plains and hunted mammoths, nature around us was very ‘coincidental’. Nothing stood nice and straight and angular. Danger was not neatly framed and bordered with signs. We had to find danger. Did we saw stripes somewhere in the grass? Chances are that it was just a coincidental pattern, but still: if it was a tiger (or whatever kind of striped predator lived back then), the price for ignoring the pattern was very high. And the price for erroneously running away from the striped grass was manageable. It must have been a simple cost-benefit analysis in our brains, which over time has perfected our pattern-finding system. And with success: we still exist as a species. We still see patterns (and faces) everywhere and still it is usually not someone or something that wants to eat us. But the cost-benefit analysis is still positive.

Which leads us to question two: why is it sometimes very bad that we see patterns everywhere? What is wrong with the simple entertainment of the optical illusion or seeing faces in a manhole cover? Surely that is innocent entertainment?

In itself, seeing those patterns is harmless. The problem is not in mistaking the the ‘simple’ ambiguity of an optical illusion or whether or not to see a rocket in the sky. The biggest problem of our addiction to patterns arises in situations that are not just ambiguous, but multi-interpretable. Real life, so to speak. Is that colleague smiling at you sincerely? Or is he looking mean at you? Is there a reason why it always starts raining when you want to go outside, or that you get a headache from talking on the phone? We are searching all day long for patterns to make our world understandable.

That search for patterns in ‘real’ life is necessary and helpful. But we take those patterns a bit far. Especially in situations of uncertainty and extreme emotions (fear, happiness), our interpretation machine sometimes runs wild. Evolutionarily speaking, of course, still very logical: especially in situations of danger, the pattern-finding machine had to save your life. But still: in today’s society this sometimes results in a lot of misery. People follow their pattern-searching-machine to the most extreme theories, because simply stated ‘It can’t really all be a coincidence’.

If something happens, especially something very good or something very bad, then we have to find an order, a reason. And faces with that pressure, our pattern-searching machine is our best weapon to order quickly, to understand quickly and above all: to quickly get back on solid ground. The problem? The patterns we find are always based on the worldview we already understand, already know by heart, already accept. I don’t know anyone who sees patterns of unknown objects in clouds, or who recognises new inventions in buildings. With the help of our pattern-finding machine we rebuild the world back to our existing point of reference. We rebuild the world as long as it looks like we know it. Safe, familiar and conservative.

The reason we hold on to our known world and patterns in this way is that the alternative to our head is much worse. If we do not find patterns, we will have to accept a new reference point. A very uncomfortable reference point. Namely that a lot in our lives is nothing more than a coincidence. The peanut butter sandwich that falls on the smeared half? The walkman you forgot to give back after borrowing, from the person who eventually became your husband? Your baby that died? The thunderstorm when you didn’t have an umbrella with you or the sudden sunshine when you had left your sunglasses at home? All of them just stupid coincidences.

Seeing and acknowledging coincidence is so difficult because we find it scary, seeing it as something negative. Many religions are based on the idea that coincidence does not exist. And in science everything is done to eliminate coincidence. Recognizing how much coincidence there is in our lives, would completely destroy the entire book and film industry (And then? Oh, coincidentally it went well. The End). Coincidence is elusive, incomprehensible and therefore taboo. We prefer to keep quiet about coincidence completely.

And so, bit by bit, we have learned to disregard coincidence completely. As Robert J. Tibshirani, a statistician at Stanford, explains: You are surprised when you get dealt a royal flush at poker. And you’re right: the chance of getting those cards is very small. But at the same time the following is true: the chance of ANY set of five cards you get is very small. You only notice it if the set is very good (or very bad). And if you get a royal flush twice in a row? Then superstition is born and every time you play poker you put on your ‘lucky shirt’. Because that really can’t be a coincidence…..

A brilliant illustration of our aversion to chance, especially at very good or very bad events, you can read in the article ‘The Odds of That’ by Lisa Belkin in The New York Times. She tells us about the terrorist attack of 11 September:

‘In the past year, there has been plenty of conspiracy, of course, but also a lot of things have “just happened. And while our leaders are out there warning us to be vigilant, the statisticians are out there warning that patterns are not always what they seem. We need to be reminded that most of the time patterns that seem stunning to us aren’t even there. For instance, although the numbers 9/11 (9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 11, and American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to hit the twin towers, and there were 92 people on board (9 plus 2), and Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4), and there are 11 letters each in “Afghanistan,” “New York City” and “the Pentagon” (and while we’re counting, in George W. Bush), and the World Trade towers themselves took the form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message is not actually a pattern that exists but merely a pattern we have found. After all, the second flight to hit the towers was United Airlines Flight 175, and the one that hit the Pentagon was American Airlines Flight 77, and the one that crashed in a Pennsylvania field was United Flight 93, and the Pentagon is shaped, well, like a pentagon.’

In the end, this did not turn out to be a blog about patterns, but about coincidence. And about the bad reputation we’ve given coincidence in our society. Coincidence is elusive, incomprehensible and therefore taboo. And so we condemn ourselves to our patterns-finding machine and to the world as we have always known it. We take the blue pill and live on in the safe, predictable world.


The Matrix, a science fiction film about coincidence and patterns: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/

Lisa Belkin’s ‘The Odds of That’ in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/11/magazine/the-odds-of-that.html

The art of everyday thinking: https://courses.edx.org/courses/course-v1:UQx+Think101x+2T2018/course/

2001: a space odyssey

The human brain fascinates me. So I will probably stay with this avenue of research – and with these blog-subjects – for a while. Because the computer in our heads… is not a computer at all! That is to say: the brain is nothing like what we now call a computer. The brain does not calculate neutrally, can remember almost nothing flawlessly, continuously changes the input you put into it and independently makes choices, without telling you, in what will and what will not get processed. Because of this independence, the brain is on the one hand so much smarter and more effective, and on the other much more unpredictable and dangerous, than a computer.

A brief word about computers: People (very smart people) have been looking for artificial intelligence (AI) for a long time. First they looked for it in computing power (a computer is really very fast!). The first big step ever made in the AI was defeating Garry Kasparov (at that time world chess champion) in a game of chess. By Deep Blue. A name from the science fiction book right? You can already see him in your minds eye, a few years after this victory, as dictator of the world (or do pictures like this only play in my head?).

Anyway: in the end it turned out that Deep Blue was not such a smart robot. He was just a very, very fast one. After every move Kasparov made, he was able to calculate quickly enough what the effect would be of all the possible countermoves. This way he could always choose the best move. That is very clever, but in the end it was decided that clever was not the same as smart.

The second big step in the AI was taken by the computer AlphaGo. He defeated Lee Sedol (9th dan) in the game Go. Go is much more complicated than chess, so just computing very fast was not enough anymore. No, in her preparation for the game against Sedol, AlphaGo went looking for experiences. She practiced against other computers, and against people.  She practiced her play of Go quite the same way we learn to ride a bicycle. In this way the computer built up knowledge and experience. Quite similar to how we as humans would do it, if we made time for learning the game GO. This victory was a real victory for AI, and specifically for learning (independent learning, not programming) by computers.

But digress enormously. Because the reason I find this subject so interesting is that our brains look more like AlphaGo than Deep Blue. We see things, learn from them, and remember (in a certain way) those experiences. To start of with, computer experts gave AlphaGo rules about how to handle her learning. And after that, the machine went on her own. And you know: we are also given a set of rules at to start out with (As to how this happens, I am neutral: I’m skipping the Nature/Nurture debate for now). Rules that our brain uses to start learning completely independently. Rules that generally help us get by, but sometimes complicate life enormously

In the coming blogs, I’d like to discuss a few of these rules with you:

  • Patterns are better than chaos (think of the dots in the previous blog).
  • I can predict the future (a misconception that stems from that love for patterns).
  • I can prove that I am right (because all facts indicate that the earth is flat).

So next time ‘Patterns are better than Chaos’. And then you will find out whether or not there is a pattern in this image:

Links from this blog are:

Now you see me…

What do you see in the picture above? Black spots on a white background?

What if I say that I had almost called this blog the 101 Dalmatians? Does that help?

If you still have no idea, stop reading and enjoy this moment. Because believe me: once I’ve explained it, you’ll never be able to look at this picture like this again, the way you see it now.

Well, can I?

This optical illusion is an example of is one of Hans Rosling’s rules of thumb (see Know the devil by his name, for an introduction to these rules of thumb): One perspective: make sure you acquire a toolbox. What Hans Rosling meant by this was; you often only see one point of view. This point of view not only determines what you see (because you never see everything you could see) but also how you interpret, that which you do see.

Take this picture: what you see, depends on the context in which you see it. By the way: for a long time psychologists gave al sorts of meanings to what you saw in this picture, but that is no longer considered credible today. So it is merely amusing: what do you see?

One sees a young woman looking back, over her shoulder. The other sees an old woman, looking forward. One sees a necklace, the other a mouth. One sees an eye, the other an ear.

Ultimately, pictures of women and dogs are very funny, but what significance do they have in my research? Why do I learn about optical illusions and how to fool my head?

For me the core value in these observations is, that it is very difficult to change perspectives. Once you see the Dalmatian, it is difficult to come back to that moment when you were only looking at dots. Once you see the young (or old) woman, it gives you an headache to see the other woman. With time it gets easier: the eye can get trained, and apparently so can the brain. Every one of you who has seen this picture a lot, knows how to get both the old and the young woman in view within milliseconds. Changing perspective apparently is an acquired skill that improves, when both perspectives feel familiar.

What does all this have to do with my ability to change my mind? If I have to believe ‘De Correspondent‘ (sorry, article in Dutch), a lot. In the article they write about research that shows something very striking (and at the same time something very logical): the stronger your opinion on a certain subject, the less you are able to ‘see’ the logical arguments that do not support your opinion. Facts may be important for forming an opinion, but they are often not the ‘driving force’ behind changing opinions. To get back to the optical illusions: no matter how true it is that the Dalmatian and old woman are present in the picture, if you don’t want to see them, you really can’t.

For me this point really hit home this week in the book ‘Strangers in their own land’, which I am still reading. After reading almost 2/3 of the book, I was still in the academic, contemplative position. I was constantly thinking about what I could use from the book for my research project. I did not have a real connection with the people Hochschild wrote about. The residents of the state of Louisiana, who daily deal with the consequences of environmental pollution by companies that break all the rules, while at the same time willingly voting for those politicians who give these companies room to keep on breaking rules and polluting, remained quite academic for me. I was ‘proud’ of Hochschild for taking so much trouble to write about  ‘their’ side of the story. But in my head it remained just that, ‘their’ side of the story.

On page 135 in the book Hochschild begins the deep story of these people. Their story. Their perspective. I hope to record a reading session of this story  for you soon, so you can hear their story for yourselves the intense way Hochschild writes it down. But imagine this: “You have been queuing up for years for the ‘American Dream’. You work hard and wait patiently. And you feel and see yourself hardly moving forward (sometimes even backwards). Again and again you see ‘others’ walking by, inserting themselves in front of you in the queue. Cutting the line? Or finding their rightful place? You don’t know, but you do know that you work hard, get older and older, and seem to be pushed further and further back”.

The deep story of the workers in Louisiana touched me. My perspective shifted: I saw the old woman. And for the first time I could understand how these people were blind to all arguments that I found very compelling, about why they shouldn’t vote for the tea-party. And how all the arguments that were hardly worth noticing in my book, were touching them deep in their  hearts and minds. How it was possible that we could look on the same situation, and see a totally different picture.

So there it is: go out and get yourself a toolkit. Practice daily with your own perspective. As a very wise woman (the queen of hearts in Alice in Wonderland) once said:

Links uit dit verhaal:

The dalmatian illusion is from: edX Science of everyday thinking, do you see what I see?

De Correspondent: Waarom slimme mensen domme dingen zeggen.

Arlie Russel Hochschild: Stranger in their own land.

Hans Rosling: Factfulness

Know the devil by it’s name

My quest has started. Now that I have discovered that changing opinion is indeed very difficult (see Through the Looking Glass), I’m delving into the reason why this is so. This week: social media, primates and brains.

First, I dive into social media. I read the book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now‘ by Jaron Lanier. The book paints me a gloomy picture: Social media hs nothing to do with connecting people. It has to do with growth, data and making money.

Lanier gives ten reasons why you should delete your accounts. In fact, all of these reasons are based on the ‘Bummer-machine’ he describes, which runs under the hood of many social media. The Bummer machine can be divided into six elements:

A is for Attention acquisition.
B is for Butting into everyone’s lives.
C is for Cramming content down your throat.
D is for Directing behaviours in the sneakiest way possible.
E stands for Economic gain.
F stands for Fake groups and fake society.

In this machine, part E is the force that drives all other elements. As Lanier describes: economic gain is the goal of the companies behind the social media. And economic gain can be maximized at the least cost through Attention, Butting in, Cramming, Directing and Fake. I won’t go in to all his arguments here (read the book!) but the picture he paints is depressing. Social media aren’t intentionally ‘bad’, but the economic model in which attention and data have become money, leads to very perverse effects.

In an article about Facebook in The New Yorker, this Bummer machine is explained further. A former Facebook employee talks about Facebook’s most important ‘target’, the L6/7 (how many people log into Facebook six out of seven days): “You could say it measured how many people love this service so much they use it six out of seven days. But, if your job is to get that number up, at some point you run out of good, purely positive ways. You start thinking about ‘Well, what are the dark patterns that I can use to get people to log back in?

Lanier’s solution is simple: be a cat. Don’t walk like a dog in the pack and don’t look for approval, but follow your own path as a headstrong cat-like. And follow that path without using social media. Not because there is no internet – or social media – possible without exploitation, but because at the moment almost all large companies still choose to take exploitation for granted as the shortest way to profit.

I read Lanier’s book, read the article in The New Yorker, and deleted my Facebook account. It felt like a relief. But at the same time it felt like it was ‘too easy’. What now? Did I have to wait for a ‘reliable’ social media to emerge? And who should I believe telling me that this next option would be better? Should I fulfill all my social media needs on Linkedin (a platform that Lanier says works without the Bummer machine)?

I still felt like a dog, only now I followed another pack. I wanted more, I wanted to choose for myself. And so, I decided, I had to delve into the why: why does the Bummer machine work? What’s embedded in my system, that I’m so easily tempted to get negative content pushed through my throat and that I want attention? What happens in my head, in my heart and in my abdomen? And above all: can I do something about it? Can I become a conscious consumer of social media?

To find out, I read a book and went on to follow two university courses. The book was ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling, the courses are ‘Evolution of the Human Sociality: A Quest for the Origin of Our Social Behavior’ from the University of Kyoto, and ‘The science of everyday thinking’ from the University of Queensland, both via edX.

What the courses, but especially the book, have taught me, is that there are indeed certain things that are embedded in our heads. But not irreversibly. The ingrained patterns are more a consequence of unconscious thought processing. they are mostly logical ‘short cuts’ that are smart most of the times, but when used unconsciously can lead to faulty conclusions. In short: we use these short cuts in our heads to avoid having to think about everything, every time. That is very good and necessary. But the short cuts used, become so unconscious that we are no longer aware of them when we use them. And so things can feel ‘true’ and ‘well-considered’, while they are only a guess.

Fortunately, it is a positive and activating book, which not only indicates what goes wrong in our heads, but also how we can arm ourselves against it. The ten ‘rules of thumb’ for conscious consumption are:

1. Gap: look for the majority, not for the gap.
2. Negativity: count on bad news, because good news is less often told;
3. Straight line: lines can bend, be careful with extrapolation;
4. Fear: Calculate the risks;
5. Size: see things in proportion;
6. Generalization: question your categories;
7. Fate: slow change is still change;
8. One perspective: make sure you get a toolbox;
9. Scapegoat: don’t blame anyone;
10. Urgency: take small steps.

I’m not going to elaborate on all of these heuristics in this blog either, because it’s really too much fun to read this book (especially if you’ve become a bit depressed after John Lanier’s book and the article in The New Yorker). I’m guessing that I’ll come back on some of these  in future blogs, because I think the heuristics and mechanisms Hans Rosling explains, really underlie a lot of the dillemma’s about changing your opinion.

For this blog it is enough to share that I have successfully applied the rules of thumb online. Especially on Twitter, where I get a lot of my news. The difference in how I experience reading my feed is really amazing. Knowing that certain messages – negative, anxious, urgent and giving me a scapegoat – enter my head as if they are boldly printed in capital letters, (UNSAFE NUCLEAR PLANT KEPT RUNNING BY GOVERNMENT!) helps me to put them into perspective. Knowing that my head is not good with numbers and is scared of large numbers (4.2 million babies died worldwide in 2017!), helps me to take the time to read on and understand the story behind these kind of figures, before I draw conclusions. The information I received in the book about the state of our world (a small hint, the world is doing better than you think) helps me to stay positive in an environment that is currently flooding me with Kavanaugh, Net Neutrality, Dividend Tax and the Childpardon (last two subjects are really Dutch).

With the help of Hans Rosling I start to feel more of a cat every day: independent and self-confident. So I confidently choose  to use some social media still, despite their Bummer machine. Twitter remains a place where I find news and share my story. Instagram is where my adolescent son lives and where I want to keep living. I did delete my personal content there. I completely removed Facebook, with some heartache, because I used it to keep in touch with friends who live far away. And so I walk through the social digital landscape and make my own choices. Maybe not always the best ones, but at least more and more conscious choices.

Links from this story:

The title is a quote from episode 4 of the TV series: Lost in Austen

edX (where you can follow courses like I did and many other beautiful courses)


‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Article New Yorker on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg: Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks democracy?

Opinion New York Times on regulating social media: The slippery slope of regulating social media.

Article in the correspondent on how your brain works: Weet dat je te weinig weet (Dutch article).

Through the Looking Glass

A month ago I announced that I would start a quest. My personal search for the answer to the question of life, the universe and the rest. Why is it so difficult to listen to each other? In this rapidly digitalising society, is it becoming increasingly difficult for us to change our minds? And if so: where will this end?

A month in a mobile home has taught me a lot. First, the realization that when I say: why do people no longer listen to each other? I actually mean: why are there not more people listening to me? The ‘Frodo effect’ – the effect that you think of yourself as the hero – is real to me. I secretly think that I see everything clearly. That at least I don’t have to change my mind.

This became tangible when I listened in the mobile home to the fantastic podcast ‘Science Vs’. A podcast that contrasts scientific research with… what your uncle says at a party. About subjects like organic vegetables, about weapons, about ghosts. And also an episode about antidepressants.

Until then, I had listened to all the episodes with great pleasure. Nice to hear how nonsensical claims (climate change does not exist, or is at least not caused by humans) were countered by the sarcastic presenter with irrefutable facts. How wonderful! Finally someone who figured out how things really were! I was even a bit surprised to hear that the podcast was quite controversial and that people were very angry about it. Because how could you be angry with science?

And then…. then she told me in her cheerful, sarcastic way that anti-depressants hardly work better than a placebo. And I felt a physical reaction to this message. You should know that I have had two depressive periods, one of which (after the birth of my son) was quite serious. The pills I got then were my salvation, in my head and heart they are the only thing that stood between myself and disaster.

And just as cheerful as in her previous podcasts, the presenter told me that my head probably fooled my body to a considerable extent. And I went completely -100% – rigid with resistance. For 10 minutes I was busy thinking up arguments why what she said was nonsense. Why my case was different. Why antidepressants had worked for me! My head was so busy that I hardly listened to the rest of the podcast. In which, by the way, it was said that some scientists do not agree with this conclusion, and do think that antidepressants do help significantly. In which the very complex picture was sketched of the scientific existence of antidepressants. I did not hear it: I only heard the rejection of my worldview, of my truth.

I sat there  in my co-driver’s seat in the motorhome, and suddenly I thought: it’s just very difficult to change my mind! I want to be right too much. I feel attacked too quickly. I feel stupid if I am wrong.

This makes the question even more important: how can we change our mind? And the fact that we live in this digital 21st century? Does it help or hinder it? All those new information flows we have, all those new filter bubbles in which we live? What does that mean for our ability to be wrong, to make mistakes?

This last month I have been reading and listening:

– Steven Fry’s Great Leap years

– Science Vs

– Strangers in their own land

Next month I will try to read:

– Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

– The Happiness project

– Factfulness