Monday 15 February 2016

The role of patterns in human habit

1- Introduction
Once in a while, we decide to get used to a new habit or forget a one, like doing morning exercise, not drinking a sugary beverage, studying every night, learning to play or sing a piece of music or song, etc. You can look at these habits as some patterns or sequences of doing specific tasks. Even when you get used to a habit, whenever you repeat it, you may change some parts of it or apply some improvement to it and after a while at some point, don't need to think consciously about what you are doing.

Patterns also do exist all around us in the physical world. Try to imagine the world at a small atomic scale, at this magnitude all you have is a collection of billions of billions of billions ... of electrons, neutrons and protons.

Think about this, you can change the pattern of putting and using these three basic elements together and build the entire elements in nature? Take a proton, an electron you reach to Hydrogen, take two protons, two neutrons and two electrons you reach to Helium, ... Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, etc. Now you have all the elements. At next level, patterns of having these items together give you different molecules like water, carbon dioxide, etc. Now think about this, even in a particular molecule like water, this is again the pattern that defines water as a liquid, solid or gas. Go further you have organic molecules like proteins, the building block of life, and ... what else do you want?

Although we can go into a profound mathematical discussion and describe and derive our model based on some abstract equations since abstraction usually attracts our attention to something other than the nature of the phenomenon we prefer not doing that. Instead, we use some simple pieces of the programs to show how algorithms or data structures we talk about work. All you need to know is being familiar with a programming language and a bit of object oriented concepts.

2- You learn by repetition
Think about your daily routine, all you do is following some already known habits or patterns, trying to learn a new one or getting rid of another one. Learning or mastering a pattern happens when you repeat it again and again. Even when you want to learn a technique which requires some special control over your muscles, like typical right-handed piano players who wish to improve their control over their left hand, they just need to practice more with their left hand. Although there are techniques which give them better results in a shorter time at the bottom of the all of them, there is nothing but how we learn a pattern.

You may think it is a joke; it is not, sometimes as a piano player, you need not play for a while and then start training freshly. The reason is most of the time when you have better control over one or two fingers of your left hand; you usually use them to play the left-hand part, this is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, training the weak fingers. But if you don't play for a while, you'll let your hand and finger muscles and connected neurons go to the same level of capability during the rest period.

The idea of how we use patterns in our daily routine also can be applied to the way we try to store, recall or erase memories too. Suppose something bad has happened to you and you want to forget or erase that memory. All you need to do is not thinking about it or if it is difficult, trying to do or think about something else.  So if you want to model the things we are doing in a day, you need to model these processes:
1- Building a new pattern, like when you want to start to brush your teeth after lunch.
2- Executing a pattern to master it better or for some biological need.
3- Trying to forget or weaken an old habit or pattern.

Now if you think about your own life, you never forget a pattern you used to do it or a memory which was important to you. All you can do is just weakening it by doing or thinking about something else, so it turns out we only need to analyze the first two processes of the above list, there is no way to absolute deleting.

3 – The structure of a pattern
Although our daily patterns of doing things might look like complicated, in a nutshell, they are very simple. Consider typical everyday things you do, it is something like “waking up," “going to the bath," “going to work," then “going to the gym,” etc. So your pattern of daily routine is consist of these tasks, and each of these tasks consists of a sequence of tasks, like “going to the gym” which can be like “going to the bus stop", “taking the bus", “getting off the bus", “getting to the gym" etc. As you see if you want to model your daily routine, all you need is a list structure which its elements, could also be a list themselves, like the following:

Pattern of daily routines can be considered as list of lists or tasks

Now, what happens when we want to learn a new habit, look at the pattern (A) in the following figure and suppose we have already got used to it, it only consists of four different tasks, T1, T2, T3, and T4. And now we want to learn to do T5 after T1 and before T2.

Process of adding a new task to a pattern

What happens is that a new link comes to life when you start training doing T5 between T1 and T2, like what you see in (B). But based on what we discussed it seems our brain keeps something like a weight on each connection between elements of a pattern and the connection between a pattern's element and its detail. These weights help us to choose the most trained or the better next step when we execute a pattern. That is why we've shown weights on edges of the pattern (B) in the figure.

Look at the (B) again, before starting practicing T5 in our pattern. The only option we had after doing T1 was T2, but as we start practicing T5 after T1, the new connection comes to life with a smaller weight than already existed connection from T1 to T2. By practicing doing T5 after T1, the link between T1 to T5 gets stronger and stronger, and even may weighs more than T1 to T2. After a while when our brain completes doing T1 it automatically chooses T5 instead of the T2 because w15 is more than w12. Here is the summary of what happens when you try to include T5 between T1 and T2 in your a pattern:
  1. Before starting to practice T5 the only path of doing a task after T1 is T2, the w12 is not necessary at this time.
  2. When you start practicing T5 a new connection comes to life, so after completing T1, you have options of doing one of the two available tasks, either the old T1 or the new T5. But since w12 is much greater than w15 you have the tendency of doing T2 for now.
  3. By practicing more and more doing T5 after T1, the w15 gets larger or stronger and after a while, both w15 and w12 are got close to each other. This the point you can do both of them whenever you want. Like when you want to quit smoking, and you reach to a point which smoking or not smoking is just up to you.
  4. Practicing more T5 makes w15 larger than w12 so your brain typically chooses to start doing the new T5 element after completing T1.

4- Bad behaviors are hard to get rid of / Memories are difficult to completely forget
Look at the following figure and consider the previous example in which we tried to insert a new task between elements of our already learned pattern. We want to replace T2 with T5, in another word we want to forget to do T2 after T1 gets completed and replace it with T5 and then doing T3. By practicing you can have w15 much larger than w12 but somehow w12 never gets zero although the ratio of w15 over w12 will get very close to zero but it will never be zero.

Process of getting rid of a task in a pattern 

That can be the reason we never forget things or why sometimes some old memories or habits suddenly come to our mind or gets happen. The old habits come again, especially if you have had a memory or sense of getting an easy reward from them, like smoking or drinking a sugary beverage, etc. That is also the reason of why when something bad happens to our mutual relationship with someone even if both sides try to repair the relationship it'll never come back to the state it was before.

5- Sequential process of running a pattern
We saw some simple examples of patterns and agreed that a pattern is nothing but a sequence of elements, and any of these elements can be a task or a pattern themselves. If you think about the patterns you know or do every day, you'll find them as sequential access structure, not a random one.

It means you can't start a pattern from the middle of it unless you have a pattern which starts from that point. Need an example? There are hundreds, try to sing a song or poem you know from the middle, or if you play some instrument you surely know it is almost impossible to play a piece of music from the measure number 15! It is true more or less for memories, we keep them as a sequence of information. We are much better in memorising things when we try to learn them in sentences or a story.

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