Cognitive Turning Points: New Patternalities in the Digital Age


Knowing how something originated often is the best clue to how it works. – Terrence Deacon

Patternality is the ability to detect and make new patterns in our environment. It represents a deep instinctual drive to impose order on the world to make it useful, understandable, and survivable. All animals must recognize patterns in their environment if they are going to survive.

Humans encountered several developmental turning points that required our brains to change to reconcile the demands placed on us. As luck would have it, our brains are genetically at the ready for breakthroughs. If we look at how our species cognitive abilities have changed and adapted over a roughly six million year period, we may discover something about how we might change and adapt to today’s digital technology.

Our Ancestors

To survive, like all animals, our early quadrupedal ancestors had to go through a period assembling things into patterns and categories: things edible, things inedible, things drinkable, things undrinkable, things poisonous, things nonpoisonous.

One of the earliest turning points came when our ancestors first stood upright and gained the ability to walk bipedally. Hearing, seeing, and sensing what was above ground, created new survival opportunities. Memories of what led to succeeding or failing as quadrupeds would have to fade. They were required to construct new ways of identifying and creating patterns that allowed for success or failure as bipeds. Hand eye coordination needed to be developed. Things fell into new patterns and categories: things liftable, things unliftable, things transportable, things untransportable.

With our newfound hand eye coordination we were able to explore the affordance of nature’s objects. Each natural object was a tool-in-waiting. Our ancestors’ first tools aren’t found in any museum. Long before the man-made handaxes of the late Pliocene, a stick might have frightened out dinner from beneath a felled tree and a rock, close at hand, may have been used to bash its skull. Some of these objects became useful, then popular, then pattern enablers.

These ancestors continued to leave evidence of their social activities. Objects fell into new patterns and categories: things fashionable, things giftable, things symbolic of faith or prestige, things presented after accomplishments or rights of passage, things distributed, things traded, things bought and sold.

Other significant turning points include the invention of speaking, writing, and reading. Each of these inventions expanded our brains’ capabilities to think in ways that altered the cognitive evolution of our species.

The Digital Turning Point

If we are, with the invention of our present digital technology, at another evolutionary turning point, where would we find indications of new patternality? Consider babies that have tried to “open” a photo in a book with finger motions that work on their tablet computers. Is there a new pattern category emerging: things openable, things unopenable, things pinchable, things unpinchable

Patternality and User Experience

Humans rely on pattern recognition and our mental models to help us navigate any new and unfamiliar environments we encounter. Influences in our past drive our ability to detect patterns and create new ones. Humans feel more comfortable encountering situations we are familiar with. When users discover familiar patterns in interfaces, their brains release comforting dopamine. We love this comfort so much that we try to detect patterns where there are none. And when a pattern doesn’t behave as expected, users feel anxiety and panic. Imagine yourself using a browser with no “back” button. What if you were unable to close a pop-up window?

From then to now and into the future

The transformation of our environment brought on by the invention of digital technology has created another developmental turning point. New patternality is being formed, at times, without our realizing it. We must design with people’s mental interaction models in mind. When we can’t leverage an interaction model or pattern, we must create an interaction experience that draws from common mental models as much as possible (e.g. removing documents by moving them to the “trash.”) At the same time we can’t force a design just because it leverages the familiar.

It’s better to have people learn a new model than try to shoehorn a familiar pattern into a place it doesn’t fit. The first instinct of almost all of the usability test subjects of the first computer “mouse,” was to hold it upside down in their non-dominant hand and manipulate the track ball with the fingers of the opposite hand. But after test subjects watched the test conductor place the mouse on the table and give it a jiggle, its affordance was almost universally, immediately understood. A new pattern was born.

Will our memories of what led to succeeding or failing in the days before digital technology slowly fade with the passing of each millennium? Changes in our environment, natural, physical, or man-made, provide constant grist for the patternality mill, forever producing new avenues for pattern sensing and pattern making in an effort to make sense of our world. As our species encounters new climactic, biologic, and technological changes in our environment, what new patterns will we create? 


Brigitte Jordan
2013: 193-213 Advancing Ethnography in Corporate Environments: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities, Chapter 12 Pattern Recognition in Human Evolution and Why It Matters for Ethnography, Anthropology, and Society

Maryanne Wolf
2007: Proust and the squid

William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler
2003: Universal Principles of Design
Rockport Publishers


4 Responses to “Cognitive Turning Points: New Patternalities in the Digital Age”

  1. Michelle Hierzer
    February 26, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    The psychology behind patterns and human history is interesting to me. What I am gathering is that as social, world and technological changes happen, patterns and experience will evolve, however the root recognition may not. Humans are still human no matter what new trend arises so maybe it’s a new color but… keep it simple?!

  2. Bethany Lankin
    February 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    Yes. For example, we already have the root recognition for pinching — think of babies’ cheeks — but now we have a new pattern for things, on phones and tablets, that are pinchable.

  3. Karol Czyrka →
    February 26, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    “Will our memories of what led to succeeding or failing in the days before digital technology slowly fade with the passing of each millennium? ” Isn’t that what happens? The dark ages, where everyone forgot how to make concrete, even though ancient Romans and Egyptians were master builders. Today, how many plaster craftsmen can you find to fix that complicated ceiling in your vintage condo? I would say skills, the way we do things, and patterns as described here, are synonymous.

    • Linda
      April 9, 2017 at 7:18 pm #

      That’s an inoigenus way of thinking about it.