Brain connections

September 20, 2011

This is going to be a bit of a rambling post on the connections I see between certain activities and my predilection for, and ability to accomplish, certain tasks with a great degree of accuracy and at a pretty decent speed. You might be asking ‘What on earth is she on about?’, so let me explain…

I think there is some serious brain connectivity/function that goes on in my head that lets me be pretty good at what I do. And I think that those brain connections are enhanced — or are informed by — other activities that I do. But I haven’t figured out which came first — the ability or the activities.

Let me give you some examples that have been floating around in my head for a while…

  • Jigsaws. I really enjoy doing jigsaws. I like how I can create an outline (the border) and then fill in all the pieces, usually by focusing first on color groupings, then, within a color grouping, on the nuances of light and dark, then size and shape of the pieces — I’m pattern matching. I also like how most jigsaws are designed in such a way that only one piece can ever match perfectly with its adjacent pieces.
  • Crosswords and other word puzzles like Scrabble, Boggle and the like. As with jigsaws, I enjoy these. I like looking for patterns in letters and making words from them. I like testing my brain with all sorts of letter combinations and then confirming with a dictionary any likely combinations where the potential word is unfamiliar to me.
  • Sudoku. The pattern and beauty of the billions of combinations possible in Sudoku puzzles amazes me. Nine numbers, nine squares, nine columns, nine rows — and when you get it out, it all fits PERFECTLY.
  • Quilts. One of my passions is working with fabric, and especially making quilts and art quilts. Again, it’s all about the patterns. Taking many pieces of fabric, choosing color combinations, cutting the pieces into smaller pieces, then sewing them back together in a totally different arrangement to make a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts, inspires me. I initially worked from other people’s patterns, but more and more I’m designing and making my own. Or just seeing where a particular combination will take me. Part of the process is the quilting I now do on the pieces I make. I’ve graduated from sewing straight lines to full on free motion stitching, which is like doodling by holding the pencil still and moving the paper underneath it!
  • Other sewing stuff. Many years ago, and prior to getting into quilts, I used to make many of my own clothes. Again, the fabric colors and textures, and the patterns were the inspiration. Taking a single piece of cloth, cutting it into bits, then sewing those bits back together to make a three-dimensional object is quite an art form.

So how does all this relate to my work? And my aptitude for certain types of work? Well, this is something that I’ve been pondering for a while. Why? Because I think there’s a direct correlation between the leisure activities that I enjoy and the type of work that I do and have done. I think the brain cells I use for both work and leisure activities are the same.

Why? Well, take a look at all those activities I enjoy. They are all about patterns — patterns of letters, words, numbers, colors, sizes, shapes, textures… And they are all about taking lots of small bits and putting them together to make a whole. It’s a process I enjoy.

And my work? Well, that’s all about patterns too, and/or taking little bits and putting them together to make a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts:

  • Technical writer. When starting a new project/document, I invariably start with an outline, then flesh out the empty spaces as I gather the information. Each piece of information that I gather goes somewhere in the larger whole and it’s up to me to place it with similar pieces in a pleasing manner that’s useful and logical to the reader. I trim, refine, and embellish the pieces until eventually I have a completed document, Help file, website or whatever.
  • Technical editor. My copy editing involves several passes over a document. In each pass, I check another aspect of the document. While it seems as though I’m checking every word (and I do on the reading pass), invariably I’m looking for anything that doesn’t match the pattern I’m expecting. So, if one header has slightly different spacing, alignment, or content than another, I’ll spot it because the pattern doesn’t match. If a paragraph’s font is a slightly different size, alignment, indentation, etc. I’ll spot it as it doesn’t match the pattern. If a word is incorrect in the phrase, or is misspelled, I’ll spot that too as it doesn’t match the pattern I’m expecting. I’ve stated — half in jest — that I can spot a bolded period at 10 paces. Well, I can, but that’s because it doesn’t match the pattern that I’m expecting. I see the mismatch/inconsistency, then look to see what’s causing it. I’m sure that I’m using the same brain functions for editing that I use to put a jigsaw together.
  • Librarianship. My first career was working with information at a macro level (see https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/comparing-careers-technical-communicators-and-librarians/). While teaching information skills to students was a big part of what I did, there were other parts of that job that fitted how my brain likes to work. Many librarians hate cataloging but I enjoyed it — I loved the detailed patterns in the Dewey Decimal System, and the sheer beauty of categorizing all knowledge into 10 major divisions, with (almost) unlimited subdivisions beneath each. Even today, I get a little thrill at knowing that I can parse a Dewey number such as 595.78909941 to understand that it’s a book about the butterflies of Western Australia. I used to be able to parse an ISBN and tell you what language the book was in and which publisher published it (for the major publishers only). However, after nearly two decades away from that work, I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge.

So what can I conclude from all this? Well, it’s all about patterns. My brain seems to like patterns. It notices if the pattern isn’t followed or if there’s an inconsistency in the pattern. My brain also likes pulling together lots of small pieces/chunks and making them into something bigger that often bears little resemblance to what I started with, but that fits with another pattern.

I’ll come back to the original thought I had at the beginning of this blog post — does my brain’s liking of patterns and construction mean that I’m good at editing, writing, making quilts, doing jigsaws, etc.? Or has my enjoyment and focus on these activities made my brain much more attuned to patterns, which then translates into an aptitude for this sort of detailed work? In other words, did the chicken come before the egg?

I sure don’t know the answer! ;-)

(On a related note, Kai Weber co-presented a session on pattern recognition at the TCUK Conference a few days after I wrote this: http://kaiweber.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/pattern-recognition-for-tech-comm-at-tcuk11/.)

[Links last checked April 2019]


  1. Hi, Rhonda, thanks for the link to my post/presentation. I’ll try to answer your questions, based on what I’ve learned from my presentation research.

    Apparently, just about everybody does pattern recognition; it’s the way human brains are generally wired. But some people do it more consciously than others. And some of those get a kick out of it. To them, it’s an aesthetic pleasure, if you will. From there on, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle: You do it because you like it, and you get better at it, because you do it so much… :-)

    And it seems different people get a kick out of different patterns. Your examples seem to be more optical and conceptual. Try to dissect a Bach fugue; this guy must’ve been into patterns big time! Other people are into rhythmic patterns – polyrhythmic drumming is not for the faint-hearted, and counting the beats in your head doesn’t get you very far.

    Our presentation set out to prove that tech writing and (certain kinds of) pattern recognition have a lot in common – and it sounds like you would agree… :-)

  2. […] (Note: I did something similar several years ago, looking at how the careers I’ve had all seem to follow a pattern: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/brain-connections/) […]

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