Where Science Meets Muse

Looking For Patterns – Tips for Creative Problem Solving

Posted by Plish on May 6, 2009


We like patterns and repeatability.  It helps us get by during the day by using a minimum of brain power to deal with those things that, quite rightly, probably don’t deserve our full attention.  The issue is that when confronted with a problem, our first tendency is to try and solve it by finding the patterns contained within.

The kicker is that often there are no patterns, and if we try and impose a pattern on the situation, we can often create less than optimal solutions – we try to fix a problem that isn’t there.

Try this experiment:  Imagine you’re going to flip a coin 10 times.  Write out a sequence of 10 flips like this: H-H-T-T-H-T-H-T-H-H .

Probability says that heads and tails should be split, 50-50.  We may or may not see it with 10 coins but we will see it with 100 or 1000 tosses.   In my sequence I wrote 6 Heads to 4 Tails.  What most people do wrong (and I did it as well!)is that they assume the results will happen in a more or lessed balanced way.  So, a couple  heads here, a couple tails  there, right? 


The picture at the beginning shows 10 random flips of an ancient coin (courtesy of this site) There were 5 coin flips in row that were heads!  Not too many of us would think that that many heads could show up in a row.

But they did.

So the lesson here is that trends and patterns are tricky and can be deceiving; often they run counter to what our intuition says.  But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for patterns too.

Wait, I know what you’re thinking.  Didn’t I just say not to look for patterns?

Well, yes, but I’m not contradicting myself.  Oftentimes there is a pattern, a rhythm, a trend to a problem that is more profound than what it looks like at first blush.  It’s good that we look for patterns and causality, but we should usually look deeper than the first level.  

So which is it?  Do we look for patterns or try and see past the patterns when solving problems?

I recommend looking for patterns first but don’t stop there.  What do I mean? When looking for patterns use the following list to guide the process.

  • Try to find patterns within the patterns.
  • Don’t take the first pattern you recognize as being the governing pattern
  • Truer relationships are both elegant and profound (you’ll know it when you see it – think E=mc²)
  • Most relationships in nature are not linear (but that doesn’t mean that you can’t approximate them linearly)
  • If your relationship relies on feedback, most relationships in nature are negative feedback loops as they will stay under control.  If there are catastrophic failures, look for positive feedback systems at work.
  • If a pattern doesn’t exist, look for probabilities to guide your solution
  • ?? (What would you recommend?)

Fortunately we live in wonderfully orderly world where even things like fractals that look chaotic actually are not.   Thus, more often than not, finding those patterns in the ‘chaos’ can help us to come up with creative solutions to the problems that of the day. 

 For another perspective on patterns check out this blog over at Discover magazine.


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