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The Literal Mind and Pattern Recognition

August 9, 2011

I have finally gotten around to reading a lovely novel recommended to me by a client in the financial business last year, called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and written from the perspective of an autistic boy. In the seminar where I met the client, we had been working on understanding how information is interpreted through the “frame” they were using, and how frames can both enlighten and obfuscate the facts. Autists lack the ability to use frames. One of the very few people in the world who actually read the prospectuses of the CDO’s and understood the risk they represented was Michael Burry, a fund manager with Aspergers (a mild form of autism), who earned a fortune for his frame-free thinking.

Yet because they lack frames, autists also cannot navigate the the social world, as it is through frames that we master complexity. For some people, however, frames are dangerous expressions of human irrationality, while they point to our tendency to look for patterns in the facts and fall into the correlation/causation trap, treating patterns of correlation as facts while remaining unconscious of them as heuristics of our own invention.

Complexity takes the other side of the debate, valuing our ability to recognize patterns beyond our rational understanding which are useful to us. Only the autist lives free of the risk of confusing the former with the latter. Science helps us to do the necessary testing to ensure that the patterns we see explore reality rather than to mystify it. But the fear of error should not hinder us from trusting our intuitions. On the contrary, they represent an enormous opportunity to overcome entrained habits of perception.

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