Meaningful Noise

On my research quest investigating pattern recognition I discovered this TED talk in which Michael Shermer discusses some of the ideas that pique my interest:

He talks about how our brains have something he calls a belief engine, which allows us to learn by association (like Pavlov’s dogs) by finding patterns and making connections.

He also explains the negative side effects of this urge: incorrect pattern recognition. To explain this concept he coins a phrase patternicity, which he defines as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise” (Shermer, 2010)

He also makes a link between this concept of patternicity, the superstition that it creates, and a perceived lack of control, explaining how people who feel out of control are more likely to see patterns that don’t exist. It seems that the desire to find meaning is increased in those who feel that they lack it in their own life; they are more susceptible to the overtures of conspiracy theories, urban legends, pseudo-science and religion.

Discussing the chemical and neurological basis for this patternicity, Shermer identifies a continuum on which the optimum level of pattern recognition can drive creativity and invention, but too little creates false skepticism and too much can lead to paranoia and madness. His description of a ‘perfect’ level of pattern recognition as an optimum signal-to-noise ratio reminds me of the supposedly ‘perfect’ look of celluloid; accurate enough to portray reality, but ambiguous enough to leave room for personal interpretation.

Shermer then moves on to explain another word that represents the way in which patternicity can lead to superstition. He calls it agenticity, which he defines as, “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency, often invisible beings & from the top down” (Shermer, 2010). He believes that this concept explains the success of religion, magic and superstition (and film?), because it fulfills the need of people who feel powerless to feel protected by a greater, omnipotent being.


Shermer, M., (2010) Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception, TED Talks, Available from: [Accessed on 21 November 2015]


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