Perception is a creative act: On the connection between creativity and pattern recognition

An answer I wrote to the Quora question Does the human brain work solely by pattern recognition?:

Great question! Broadly speaking, the brain does two things: it processes ‘inputs’ from the world and from the body, and generates ‘outputs’ to the muscles and internal organs.

Pattern recognition shows up most clearly during the processing of inputs. Recognition allows us to navigate the world, seeking beneficial/pleasurable experiences and avoiding harmful/negative experiences.* So pattern recognition must also be supplemented by associative learning: humans and animals must learn how patterns relate to each other, and to their positive and negative consequences.

And patterns must not simply be recognized: they must also be categorized. We are bombarded by patterns all the time. The only way to make sense of them is to categorize them into classes that can all be treated similarly. We have one big category for ‘snake’, even though the sensory patterns produced by specific snakes can be quite different. Pattern recognition and classification are closely intertwined, so in what follows I’m really talking about both.

Creativity does have a connection with pattern recognition. One of the most complex and fascinating manifestations of pattern recognition is the process of analogy and metaphor. People often draw analogies between seemingly disparate topics: this requires creative use of the faculty of pattern recognition. Flexible intelligence depends on the ability to recognize patterns of similarity between phenomena. This is a particularly useful skill for scientists, teachers, artists, writers, poets and public thinkers, but it shows up all over the place. Many internet memes, for example, involve drawing analogies: seeing the structural connections between unrelated things.

One of my favourites is a meme on twitter called #sameguy. It started as a game of uploading pictures of two celebrities that resemble each other, followed by the hashtag #sameguy. But it evolved to include abstract ideas and phenomena that are the “same” in some respect. Making cultural metaphors like this requires creativity, as does understanding them. One has to free one’s mind of literal-mindedness in order to temporarily ignore the ever-present differences between things and focus on the similarities.

Here’s a blog that collects #sameguy submissions: Same Guy

On twitter you sometimes come across more imaginative, analogical #sameguy posts: #sameguy – Twitter Search


The topic of metaphor and analogy is one of the most fascinating aspects of intelligence, in my opinion. I think it’s far more important that coming up with theories about ‘consciousness’. 🙂 Check out this answer:

Why are metaphors and allusions used while writing?
(This Quora answer is a cross-post of a blog post I wrote: Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought)

In one sense metaphor and analogy are central to scientific research. I’ve written about this here:

What are some of the most important problems in computational neuroscience?

Science: the Quest for Symmetry

This essay is tangentially related to the topic of creativity and patterns:

From Cell Membranes to Computational Aesthetics: On the Importance of Boundaries in Life and Art


* The brain’s outputs — commands to muscles and glands — are closely  linked with pattern recognition too. What you choose to do depends on  what you can do given your intentions, circumstances, and bodily  configuration. The state that you and the universe happen to be in  constrains what you can do, and so it is useful for the brain to  recognize and categorize the state in order to mediate decision-making,  or even non-conscious behavior.When you’re walking on a busy street, you rapidly process pathways that are available to you. even if you stumble, you can quickly and unconsciously act to minimize damage to yourself and others. Abilities of this sort suggest that pattern recognition is not purely a way to create am ‘image’ of the world, but also a central part of our ability to navigate it.

Does the human brain work solely by pattern recognition?

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Synesthesia — secret passageways in the mansion of memory?

This post is a slightly modified version of my answer to a Quora question:

Is there a link between synesthetia and involuntary memory?

This is a very interesting question. I can add some neuroscientific flesh to the skeleton you have already laid out.

Involuntary memory seems to involve the ability for memories to be accessed via sensory “triggers”. This may occur via a proposed neural mechanism called Hebbian learning. Through this mechanism, “cells that fire together wire together.” In other words, if two neurons are connected together, then if they both happen to to fire at the same time, their synaptic connections are strengthened.

So to use Proust’s famous example from In Search of Lost Time, let’s say you are eating a piece of cake at teatime in your aunt’s house. A neuron — or group of neurons — linked to the taste of the cake will presumably fire. Let’s call it neuron A. Similarly a neuron that is linked to the sight of your aunt will also fire at the same time — let this be neuron B. Let’s assume that neuron A projects to neuron B. Then according to Hebb’s rule, the strength of the connection between A and B increases. This in turn improves the ability of A to cause B to fire.

The more connections there are, the more opportunities for Hebbian learning. So while you are listening to a lecture or reading a book, connections with other experiences and memories are being made, rendering the information easier to access. Synesthesia may give you more “storage space”, and as a bonus, it may give you more ways of accessing that storage space.

The memory system may be like a labyrinthine mansion. Your memories are locked away in the rooms of this vast maze of a building, and to remember something is to find a way to get to the the room where it is stored. The memory mansion of someone without synesthesia may be full of rooms that each have only a single entrance. Without knowing the way to the right entrance — the right recollection strategy — the memory may be present but inaccessible. The memory system of a synesthete, by contrast, may be like a mansion whose rooms have several entrances, as well as secret passageways linking wings of the building that are usually far apart. So a synesthete may have more ways to navigate the maze of his or her own memory!

This is of course speculation, and careful experimentation and theory will be needed to come up with a more solid explanation!

There are documented cases of synesthesia co-occurring with exceptional memory:

Savant Memory in a Man with Colour Form-Number Synaesthesia and Asperger

Synesthetic Color Experiences Influence Memory

Some more relevant citations:

Savant Memory for Digits in a Case of Synaesthesia and Asperger Syndrome is Related to Hyperactivity in the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex

Do Synesthetes Have a General Advantage in Visual Search and Episodic Memory? A Case for Group Studies

This paper suggests synesthesia may not always confer an advantage. The authors say “The results indicate that synesthesia per se does not seem to lead to a  strong performance advantage. Rather, the superior performance of  synesthetes observed in some case-report studies may be due to  individual differences, to a selection bias or to a strategic use of  synesthesia as a mnemonic.”

So synesthesia may not itself be a memory-enhancing condition, but a basis from which to discover or create improved memory-recovery strategies — a way to build new doors and secret passageways in your memory mansion! 🙂

View Answer on Quora