Originally published on March 5, 2022
An Introduction to Pattern Recognition
A few weeks ago, I returned to the Authentically Debz Podcast to dive deep into my second book, “Get Out of Your Head Vol. 2: Navigating the Abyss of Depression.” Though we covered a multitude of despair-related subjects on that episode, one of the most important ones was the concept of pattern recognition.
It’s been a while since I’ve delved into something computer-science-related on the blog, so I figure the release of that episode marks as good a time as ever to jump back into the tech world and some of its common threads with mental health.
So, to kick things off, let’s define our new term. In the computer world, pattern recognition refers to the process of looking at a particular input and determining whether or not it’s the same as, or similar to, some other object in which we’re interested.
The most common application of this notion comes from a familiar enough place: the login or sign-up pages of some of our favorite websites. Namely, most sites that use our email addresses as our usernames prevent us from logging in or signing up until we’ve entered a valid email. And how do they do such a thing? After each keystroke we log, they run a few lines of code, asking, “Does what’s in the username text field look like an email address?”
If it does, we’re free to advance to the next step or page. But, if not, we’ll have to keep typing or tweaking until we’ve entered something legitimate. That determining of what’s acceptable is where the notion of pattern recognition comes in.
Though we could certainly use this concept to refer to the recognizing of just about anything in the world, in this case, it pertains to the finding of a combination of letters, numbers, or special characters that resembles an email. For example, email@example.com.
And while we could also definitely get lost in the computer science weeds here, I think this brief introduction to pattern recognition is about as far as we need to go before we can smoothly shift gears into the mental health realm. So, with that prerequisite information in hand, let’s focus on the question on all of our minds: “What the heck do email addresses have to do with anxiety and depression?”
Linking Pattern Recognition and Mental Health
When we’re anxious or depressed, we typically turn the same kinds of thoughts over again and again. Though such thoughts can take a myriad of different forms, they usually fall into a few broad categories, such as fears or doubts about the future, regrets from the past, or musings of our inadequacies. As we dwell on such ideas, our negative feelings magnify, and our confidence in enacting change in our lives plummets.
In such situations, we sometimes convince ourselves that if we could just push through these thoughts or “outthink” them, we’d get back to peace and calm. But, as I’ve talked about extensively across this blog, the opposite is actually true: Not only can we not outwit or “solve“ such ideas, but attempting to do so only causes them to wreak even more havoc on our mental state.
What only further complicates this problem is the fact that escaping such mental challenges requires that we drop our daunting thoughts, yet doing so is a much more trying task than it would seem. There are a few reasons for this.
The first is that many of our worry cycles start subconsciously; often, it’s not for several minutes or hours that we realize we’re deep in the bowels of our minds and need to pull ourselves out of such terrifying places.
The second comes down to our internal programming. Thanks to society’s messages endorsing the power of visualization and rational thinking, over the years, we’ve convinced ourselves that applying logic to our concerns or envisioning the things that we don’t want to happen not happening will eventually bring us the peace, joy, or confidence we’re after — hence how we sometimes fall into our “brute force” attempts at outwitting our psychological demons.
Yet, our eventual frustration with that approach is also where pattern recognition makes its way back onto the scene. After years of struggling to make sense of scary and unsettling thoughts, the same subconscious processes that drive us deep into our heads bestow us with a bit of awareness muscle. Or, in other words, our brains begin to realize that they’ve seen these same scary subjects fly through our minds one too many times. And with that recognition comes a realization: We can manually exit these thinking loops and pull ourselves out of the negative feelings that ride alongside them.
But of course, such a skill doesn’t necessarily come overnight. Nor does it always rescue us from our reflective depths on demand. Instead, it quietly and humbly emerges in our psyches, then expands in size and power as we make pattern hunting a part of our conscious routine. That is, the more we say to ourselves, “I need to be on the lookout for the same sinister thoughts that made me anxious or depressed last week,” the more we’ll be able to recognize when we’ve entered disempowering lines of thinking and break free from them.
Pattern Recognition and the Limitations of the Mind
I’m sure you know by now that I like to make comparisons between our minds and computer systems. That’s how we got to this blog post (as well as many of my past writings), after all.
Yet while the mind is much like a computer in some ways, it’s undoubtedly different in others. And those differences have both their pros and cons when it comes to getting past mental health challenges.
As it pertains to pattern recognition, the biggest of those discrepancies is the frequency at which we (versus computers) run our pattern detecting algorithms and take action as a result of our findings. Here’s what I mean by that.
Let’s say we’re back on one of those email-checking, sign-up-based web pages we referenced earlier in this post. Each time we log a keystroke or hit the “submit” button on said page, the site will execute its “does this look like an email?” code. Pretty sweet, right?
When it comes to our own versions of this logic-based process, however, we sadly don’t have as scripted or predictable of an approach. Instead, our minds draw up the algorithm (read: playbook) as they go. That means, sometimes they whip out their pattern recognition skills in the middle of a mental crisis, and, other times, they leave them in the locker room.
And that’s a problem because we need a more reliable and vigilant approach if we’re to stay in positive frames of mind most of the time. Without such a strategy, we’re much more likely to let dark thoughts or deep-seated fears slip through the cracks and negatively affect our mental state.
Yet we need not wait for our subconscious minds to inject their pattern recognition skills at random; we can also choose to roll out the cannons any time we want — all it takes is awareness. In practice, that might mean having a smartphone background or wearing a wristband that reminds us to check in with ourselves regularly.
When we do so, we can ask ourselves vital questions that help us switch things up on the fly. For example, “Does what’s going through my mind at this moment look familiar?” and, “Has that dialogue mostly helped or hurt me in the past?” Once we have answers to those questions, we can write a new game script that directs us back toward some better locations in our psyches.
The more we leverage such a process, the better we’ll get at recognizing the exact thoughts and patterns that lead us to anxiety and depression. Better still, the more often we detect such things, the more prepared we’ll be to shift our thinking toward the positive the next time we find ourselves in the depths of our minds. And that’s not only a critical skill to have at our disposal — it’s also a massive step toward long-term recovery.
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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022