Patterns and patterning

July 9, 2024

Some years ago, I picked up Jeremy Lent’s book The Patterning Instinct: A cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning largely based on the title and the fact that it had an introduction by Fritjof Capra.  As a book, it seeks to break the pervasiveness of Cartesian Dualism and “the tired clichés of the science-religion debate”.  He firmly opposes techno-utopianism and is looking towards something more sustainable based on inter-connectivity.  He sees cognitive power as a form of two-way niche construction over the history of humanity.  Overall, there is much to agree, much to disagree with, and more to say about its contents, so expect more references.   But when it called to me from the bookshelf (books do that, by the way)  as I was heading from the study to the kitchen for my fifth cup of coffee, it reminded me that I needed to post on one of the principles of intervention in a complex domain, namely the human ability to handle and use patterns.

Probably one of the most familiar patterns is those associated with landscapes.  We both recognise patterns and create them through our interactions.  The banner picture, taken a few weeks ago, illustrates this well.  The Mournes have a very characteristic type of stone wall (foreground) and, of course, are defined by the Mourne Wall Walk (attempted once, abandoned halfway, but I am going back).  The landscape is also changed by paths created by animals and humans.  The experienced walker, looking at this picture, starts to pick up the patterns of pathways and potentially impassable bogs and crags, thinking of different possible routes and exploring them in imagination before studying the maps at home and then exploring.  The Tourist sees a landscape.  I can train you to read a map and a GPS system (and you need both), but without experience and a degree of natural talent, you won’t see what I see after six decades plus mountain walking and some climbing.  The ASHEN framework is a part of this – updates and links to prior posts can be found here.

Social patterns are also key; they create forms of scaffolding that reduce energy costs. I’ve previously discussed dyads, task groups, demes, and macro demes, and I’ll expand on that in the coming months.  That reference to theoretical biology is similar to the more popular idea of Dunbar numbers.   We are a social species, and social structures are essential.  Habits are also interesting, and I’ve written about mass and dark habits as a part of a relevant Christmas blog series.  I am now starting to think of dark habits as an example of habituation into management fads and as a form of addiction.  There is another exciting position here on culture that I will pick up on in my next post.  Culture is an emergent property of things we do and are done to us; it doesn’t have the causality implied in Organisational Change initiatives.  However, when a cultural pattern becomes an assemblage, it can exert downward causality as a constraint and, in effect, is a habituation.  But more on that in the next post – which may be tomorrow, but I have an all-day flight to India, so it will probably be later in the week.  But to be clear, human interaction is more important than individuals here, and to throw something out to tease interest  that has links to category theory in mathematics, which is vital to our plans at the moment,

Semiotics are also crucial – we use symbols and art to enable common meaning and insight – the Doom Figure is one example, and it is worth looking at religious symbology, which evolved to facilitate understanding between the illiterate and literate – something that is key to the use of high abstraction metadata in SenseMaker®, and we are using cartoons and illustrations in our new work on mapping attitudinal patterns which I will pick up in the next post – this one is laying down some of the theory before doing that.   Lent’s book picks up on that and also points to how religion enabled as much as it hindered scientific discovery in medieval Europe.   There is a longer story to tell, but exploring that mystery becomes essential if you see the environment as a source of revelation (Catholic, not Protestant).  Indigenous knowledge uses different languages, but it is no less scientific for that, more so in some contexts.  Crude dichotomies are the enemies of sense-making.

So, if you want people to understand things, pattern-based visualisation is better than lists of numbers – digitisation is for computers, and humans are analogue and abductive in reasoning.  The regular spider diagrams of cultural change, climate surveys, and personality tests do show a pattern but then imply, by their structure, linear, expert-driven interpretation.   We have been working on alternatives for years now, and in my next post, I will get down and dirty and talk about some of the approaches we are launching that allow very low-cost entry into new ways of making sense in the world so that we can all act on it.   That will use a pattern of collected stories for weak signal detection and to represent organisational culture patterns.   This links with our long-term pioneering approach beyond surveys: sense-giving and pattern detection.  Not to mention the ability to engage in patterning and insight on weak signal detection, a mixed method and quantitative alternative to quantitative data patterns.

We need both to be sensitive to patterns and to engage in patterning.


Both of today’s pictures were taken by yours truly.  The banner picture is in the Mournes on the walk heading from the wall to the North Top of Slieve Binnian  – the round of Slieve Binnian summits and the descent from the col overlooking the Ben Crom Reservoir is fast becoming a favourite.  The opening picture is a Doom Figure from the West End of St Issui’s Church, in Partrishow, which dates back to 1060 and has one of the most well-preserved rood screens, which dates to 1500.  It’s an exquisite location.  The Doom figure is from the 17th century. It shows a skeleton with an hourglass, spade, and scythe, a visual reminder that all (wo)men are mortal for a largely illiterate population.

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Peder Söderlind pinged me on a LinkedIn post, which picked up a fair following, in ...

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