Pattern Recognition: A Key to Success in Doing Anything Well

MentalHelp independently researches, tests, and reviews products and services which may benefit our readers. Where indicated by “Medically Reviewed by”, Healthcare professionals review articles for medical accuracy. If you buy something through our links, or engage with a provider, we may earn a commission.
Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

We have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. (…) We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”
—William Gibson

Whether you call it problem solving, trouble-shooting or issue spotting, pattern recognition is undoubtedly a key to success in doing anything well. The above quote by William Gibson, the dubbed “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, is prescient on many levels, not least of which is correctly observing the helter-skelter, mad and accelerating downshift of elusive time into hyper-drive that disallows getting too comfortable with any non-existent future given there is too little now to stand upon. All that’s left is constructing various scenarios to just get through the latest jam, the modern age’s theme song writ large in the daily, hourly and right-up-to-the-minute news items, Internet flashes and tweeter messages populating mobile devices, computers, television, and all media.


Related Reading: The Science of Manifestation: The Power of Positive Thinking

Establishing a scientific, research-based context can be helpful for appreciating pattern recognition. Pattern recognition can be seen as a research area that studies the design and operation of systems that recognize patterns in data. It can be defined as taking in raw unprocessed data and then taking some action based upon the category of the pattern. Further, pattern recognition has the aim to classify data patterns based on either statistical information extracted from the patterns or on some a priori or “before the fact” knowledge. The patterns to be classified most commonly use groups of observations and measurements, which serve as defining points in a pertinent or appropriate multidimensional space. Pattern recognition includes a built-in flexibility of approaches and patterns, in contrast to pattern matching in which the pattern is rigidly specified.

The basic format for pattern recognition consists of a sensor(s) that gathers observations to be described or classified, a feature extraction mechanism that computes symbolic or numeric information from the observations, and a description or classification scheme that does the key job of describing or classifying observations relying on the extracted features. Less formally, this same format practically applies to everyone. Pattern recognition is appreciated and studied in numerous fields, including psychology, cognitive science, computer science, ethology, computer science and medical science for computer-aided diagnosis. Applications include automatic speech recognition, automatic recognition of handwritten postal codes on postal envelopes, automatic recognition of images of human faces, or the classification of text into several categories (such as email messages into spam or non-spam). 1

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


Of course nothing prevents people from misusing any skill, tool, or ability, and this equally applies to pattern recognition, with the caveat that the majority of poor behavior and attitudes derive out of sheer ignorance. Driven by poor character, unawareness, unworkable psychological behavior, traumatic survival decisions, and ego-mind desires, including security, money, power, glory, pleasure, and pride, trouble-shooting pattern recognition can become trouble seeking, conflict-resolution can become conflict-maximization, and supportively constructive can become destructively defeating. Being present and witnessing along with being savvy, astute and discerning over who is worth trusting (i.e., trustworthy) and who is not worth trusting (i.e., untrustworthy) are powerful prevention strategies.

Often pattern recognition is another name for qualitative data analysis or, even more accurately, qualitative data pattern recognition. Sorting through all the non-numeric, non-analytical information to recognize relevant patterns is a messy process at best for our brains. A pointer for how this process unfolds may be illuminating. A client offered the fabulous metaphor of being given a bag of puzzle pieces with far more pieces than are necessary, some missing pieces and a fair number of irrelevant pieces. The vision is to put the pieces together to form a coherent, accurate and useful picture of what is going on. Is that yellow piece apart of the sun in the sky, a reflection on the water or a shirt? Is this blue piece the sky, the water, a building or something else? It is precisely through fiddling or messing around that qualitative intuitive judgments emerge and can yield a puzzle picture as a gestalt or whole. Isn’t this how pattern recognition works, even with the most astute of backgrounds, skills, tools and discernment?

One recent empirical finding in pattern recognition: “The quantitative research findings indicated that pattern recognition was significantly more likely to produce an accurate diagnostic outcome than analytical reasoning strategies during a physiotherapy history.” 2 In pattern recognition, whatever symbolic or numeric information from observations that is classified based on extracted features in a classification scheme, it is quite different from employing analytical reasoning strategies. This awareness aids seeing how pattern recognition at core works outside the rational analytical mind, albeit using numeric and symbolic information in a classification scheme. Would it be too large a jump to suggest that applied pattern recognition draws upon a more holistic, intuitive or gestalt awareness in accurate and effective usage? And is this awareness more of an overall recognition of a pattern or variation on a pattern that has shown itself to be practically useful? Moreover, does this moment of awareness itself of the pattern being recognized only occurs in this here-and-now moment?

If the answers to these aforementioned inquiries are affirmative, then two components are critical to effective pattern recognition: (1) being available to be present and standing back; and, (2) witnessing the raw data and classification scheme in a system from outside the system, much like witnessing the mind and what it is up to by standing outside of the mind. Without the first component of dwelling in and inhabiting presence, exactly how would anyone practice pattern recognition and be effective at it? While necessary, would it be sufficient? If the three elements of any commitment are a publically stated intention for taking actions, a time and a date to commence and complete actions, and follow-through in appropriate actions, then at the very least these three elements would be engaged and in operation.

Observe for yourself how the free-falling, ever-morphing idea of now has kept the direct experience of being now a virtual hostage, as clearly evident by the great swath of humankind almost entirely missing, being unaware and ignorant of not showing up and inhabiting this moment. At the same time, humankind continues to be seemingly lost in the alternating revere and tyranny of their thoughts about everything under the sun. Of course this is nothing new. Not being awake, aware and conscious of the here-and-now moment of existence has only rarely ever interested anyone throughout the ages given the siren call and ego-mind’s preoccupation of reminiscing, regretting and rewriting the past along with projecting the conditioning of the past, it’s fears and hopes, into some dreamed up future. Here-and-now in presence is precisely where the art and science, astuteness and simplicity, of pattern recognition can take its well-deserved place of centrality.

The second crucial component is to be able to have some distance or perspective on the raw data within any system. This takes being able to stand outside of the system to begin to see the entire system and how it functions, and this can only occur in presence when a shift into witnessing happens. The greater danger is to fool oneself that the system and its patterns can be seen while standing inside of it. Just as no fish can know it is in water without first getting outside of the water to see the water it has been swimming in its entire life, so no one could begin to actually see the system as a whole and its patterns of functioning without being present and viewing it from outside the system itself. What would effective problem solving, trouble-shooting or issue spotting look like without presence and witnessing? Allowing yourself to slowly develop a deepening capability for presence and then the further ability to witness, and regularly hone presence and periodically shift into witnessing consciousness, is invaluable.

Illustrations serve to illuminate and enhance these points fully landing inside of you. I’ve worked with people in law school who experience such significant anxiety, panic and freezing during essay exams that it jeopardizes not only receiving a good grade but even passing the course, which later often sabotages passing the Bar exam during the grueling three days of essay testing. Several clients felt sadness and loss over repeatedly failing the Bar over this very pattern reoccurring.

In these experiences it became clear that no matter how well prepared the student was, their anxiety, fears, panic and freezing blocked their accessing relevant information. Even more importantly, their ability to see or spot critical issues, and cite pertinent principle and case law, was significantly impeded. As their anxiety, panic and freezing symptoms were progressively resolved employing a variety of treatment approaches, each person was able to correctly spot issues and site principles and cases, ultimately passing the tests, classes and Bar with flying colors. While coping well with symptoms and going to the root of these physical-psychological symptoms were necessary to gain access to relevant information, it is just as essential to be able to non-analytically, accurately and competently spot the legal issues at hand and cite appropriate legal principles and case law, that is, use pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition applies to all systems. If a medical doctor or a professional in field of clinical psychology were unable to ask the pertinent questions, run the essential tests, and bring a background of education, training and experience on human health, diseases and disorders, how productive and competent would each be in deducing an accurate diagnosis, devising an effective treatment plan, facilitating a vision of vital health, and helping produce well-being? One may reflect on whether this is any different in any professional endeavor, whether it is in finance, investments, real estate, teaching, research, business, science or the arts. Would it be any different in all trades, whether being a competent plumber, construction worker, carpenter, roofer, home remodeler, landscaper or property developer/ builder? In fact, every job and career, whether blue collar, white collar or professional, comes with some description of duties and activities which entail developing many skill sets to perform adequately. What has become more and more seeable by now is how crucial pattern recognition is for excellence and how such excellence is highly associated with success in doing anything well. This particularly includes the highly underrated skill set of social intelligence, sometimes simply called social skills.

This view seems to go deep onto many levels of not only earning a living, but further into living well, happily and productively throughout one’s life, very much including one’s personal life. Imagine being in a marriage relationship, along with child and teenager relationships, without the requisite pattern recognition skill sets of effective communication, spotting problems arising early on, and resolving these life challenges genuinely and completely. Of course, a plethora of research-based hard data on quality of marriage relationships as well as divorces make a strong case that most married couples do not have the essential pattern recognition skills sets to enjoy a satisfactory, even moderately or highly satisfactory, marriage relationship. 3 Further, one seminal study of over 15,000 couples by David H. Olson, Ph.D. found that in his factor analysis deriving seven types of marriages even the most highly satisfied couples had problems arise in their relationships, but they resolved them well. 4

Is the core of being effective and successful in life one of being the most adaptive in addressing the constantly changing life conditions, circumstances, and situations, even as strongly theorized by Charles Darwin after rejecting the criteria of the strongest, most intelligent and fittest? If so, then the ability to trouble-shoot, problem-solve and spot issues and resolve them very well, broadly conceived as pattern recognition, is a key ability or capability to cultivate in doing anything well. To cultivate the maturity and capacities to regularly stand inside of now awareness (i.e., presence) and stand outside the mind/system to see the mind/system (i.e., witnessing) are invaluable tools. Pause, watch the patterns of life unfold, spot the most effective patterns and act on them. See what results and judge for yourself.


1. Pattern recognition: Wikipedia:

2. Peter Miller, Pattern recognition is a clinical reasoning process in musculoskeletal physiotherapy, Masters research, Master of Medical Science, University of Newcastle, Faculty of Health, School of Health Sciences, 2009.

3. Data addressing this set of issues is summarized in: John Gottman, Ph.D. & Nan Silver (2004), The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. London, United Kingdom: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd); and the following websites:…the_divorce_rates_alone_do_not_reflect~

4. Summary of David H. Olson’s study:

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
Read In Order Of Posting