Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Not Thinking and More About Patterns

This past weekend held an incredible gaming event, APEX 2013, with quite a large number of people coming from all over the world to participate in a variety of games.  Amazing matches were played by awesome people; for my part, I played at least half my games against people from out of the country.  It was a heck of a weekend.  I also spent a lot of time talking about gaming and psychology, which are two of my favorite topics, so between the video games, East Coast pizza, and getting to talk a lot, I had a great time.

Today's subject is about patterns, and the thoughts I have on them come from two main ideas.  First has to do with the way athletes and performers describe their optimal "zone" when competing or performing; many of them say that their mind is totally clear, that they just see and do things without thinking about them.  Armada, Swedish SSBM world current champion and winner of the SSBM 1v1 tournament at APEX 2013, says his head is totally empty while he plays.  Considering all the emphasis that is placed on the mental aspect of gaming and competition, this would seem counter-intuitive, but it's very common.

The second idea is based on the description of brain functioning in "How To Creat A Mind," by Ray Kurzweil.  According to Kurzweil, thought and decision making primarily function through pattern recognition.  Our brain stores an absolutely massive number of patterns, which themselves are composed of smaller and smaller patterns.  It's how we can recognize the letter A, even when it's in a completely different font from normal; our brain has stored tremendous different pieces of information about what might lead to something being the letter A.  The more of them that we perceive, the more likely we recognize something as being a written "A."  Some elements are more important than others, and trigger the pattern recognition more strongly; eventually our brain hits a threshold of recognition where it says, "this is an A."  It builds upward by comparing different patterns and components, using the strength of experience and interconnectedness between ideas.

And, of course, pattern recognition works backwards.  If you get a very funky looking A to the point you don't recognize it, but it's followed by "pple," then you are likely to decide it is an A after all, because A fits into the higher-level pattern.  And when you see "appl" followed by something weird, you kind of know in advance it's going to be an "e", because your brain's pattern recognition software looks up to "apple" and then back down to "e."  And it happens super fast, so fast that you just see it without realizing it.  To give you an idea of the magnitude of your pattern recognition capabilities, also consider that a tilted "e" starts to bear some similarity to a "y," and that your brain would recognize the context of an entire sentence to know that the word wasn't "apple," it was "apply").  As patterns are reinforced through more experience and action, the threshold for recognizing a pattern becomes lower and lower, corresponding with the strength of the connections.  Thus, we can see what we expect to see, based on our past experiences.  The more deeply held an experience, the faster and more unconsciously related thoughts and actions will happen.  The true beauty is how aware the brain is of its own pattern recognition, so it can actually understand its own process, and understand how it could possibly be confused, and even store that information for future use.

That's all pretty neat.  How does it apply to gaming?

Well, when it comes to abilities and skills--which describes almost everything we do--it's a matter of doing something long enough until it becomes automatic.  Once it has become automatic, the thing that interferes with it the most is conscious thought!  Concentrating and asking, "hey, should I do this here? or should I do something else" will inhibit the brain from acting out its patterns the way it needs to.  This is what happens when you "choke" under pressure; instead of the action flowing naturally, you overthink it just a bit, or get just a little distracted at the crucial moment, and the second nature you've developed through training becomes inhibited and clunky.  The best option, once you have trained sufficiently (and you've trained well enough) is to avoid conscious thought!  You want the well-honed patterns in your brain to fire instantly and efficiently, without interference from other patterns and ideas.

It's why, even though good sleep and a clear head are so important to optimal performance, that people report playing better than average when sleep-deprived or high or drunk.  They lose the mental fortitude to inhibit themselves, and sometimes those will come out as perfectly executed patterns of skill.  Of course,  because your reflexes, balance, and motor control (and possible long term health damage) diminish from things like that, those aren't great situations to be in.

We're just here to check and make sure you
can handle us not checking on you.
It's also why high expectations can murder performance.  When you stop to check on your performance every two seconds to make sure it's living up to the expectations you have of it, you are interfering with the process.  Like having a boss that walks over to your desk every three minutes to ask how the report is coming; the boss is just acting concerned, but what you really want is for them to ignore you so you can get on with it.  The ultimate solution to this is to check to make sure the skills and abilities that you've trained are satisfactory; understand your performance will always vary a bit, but the skills are satisfactory on average, trust them to do their job.  If they prove themselves not to be, replace them.

But, of course, that's tricky.  As we've established, the more and more you use and train and trust the patterns and skills in your head, the more unconscious they become.  The more unconscious they become, the harder they are to intercept and fix.  It's part of why you so rarely see truly long-term dominant players, apart from physical ability diminishing with age; somebody shows up with newer, better skills, and it can be massive work to undo old habits than develop new, good ones.  It takes a lot of humility and hard work to retrain yourself if you've pushed yourself to a high level after a long period of time.  It's doable, but quite an undertaking in itself.

Thanks for reading.  See you on Friday.


  1. Thanks, entertaining and instructive.

  2. Have you heard of the Thousand Brains theory of intelligence? I think it helps clarify how we recognize patterns and what that means for making our performance and learning more efficient.