Being an effective therapist is all about discovering patterns. Our brains have surprising pattern-recognition skills that can be enhanced with training. But some people, and some therapists, do not use all their pattern-recognition skills, and instead they fall back on weaker methods.
Autostereograms provide an example of surprising pattern-recognition. Here’s one by Andrej Olejnik (click the image for a larger version):
You either know how to view these images, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you can find instructions by searching the Internet.
A few people have visual impairments that prevent them from ever seeing these images as three-dimensional. Some more people could see them if they learnt the trick. However, the brain’s ability to process these images is something that everyone already has. The trick is only in activating your brain’s built-in capability.
If you can’t see the steam locomotive in this example, what can you do? Well, if you go to the original web site, you can find a two-dimensional representation of the hidden image. This is the weaker fall-back method.
The weaker method has some disadvantages. You don’t get to experience the three-dimensional image. And it’s rare that the two-dimensional version is so easy to find. In many cases, the two-dimensional version is not published anywhere.
Newspapers here in the UK, and in some other countries, publish word puzzles with cryptic clues. For example, in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph:
Newly-formed orchestra has great drawing capacity (9 [letters])
If you are used to these puzzles, the answer (“CARTHORSE”) will jump out at you (sooner or later, depending on how good you are). The point is that the answer jumps out at you. Whatever processing your brain does to produce the answer is at least partly unconscious.
If the answer never comes to you, then you can read it in tomorrow’s edition of the paper. But the published solution only reveals the word, not the pattern that links the word to the clue, and it only reveals it tomorrow. It’s a weaker method.
For a more subtle example, here’s number 6 of a hundred pattern-recognition problems invented by a Russian computer scientist, M. M. Bongard:
Your task is to discover two rules. One rule applies only to the six figures on the left. The other rule applies only to the six figures on the right.
This is more subtle because there is no unique answer. However, any possible answer that you might come up with is easy to test. In this sense, it’s just like the autostereogram and the crossword clue — some of the processing required to arrive at the answer is the result of an unconscious mechanism in your brain, but once you have the answer, you can be consciously certain that it is the answer.
Here’s one possible answer:
LEFT: Three sides
RIGHT: Four sides
Again, you can find an answer without seeing the pattern, simply by searching the Internet. However, I chose this problem carefully. While researching this article, I came across one web site that gives an incorrect answer to this particular Bongard problem.
A choice of approaches
So, when you are faced with a pattern-recognition problem of this kind, you have a choice of approaches. You can learn to activate the unconscious pattern-recognition skills that are already present in your brain, or you can choose to find a pre-packaged answer some other way, without actually seeing the pattern for yourself.
By choosing a pre-packaged answer, you risk finding an answer that is wrong, or one that gives you only limited understanding, or you might spend a long time searching and come up with no answer at all.
Different people choose different approaches. Here’s another of Bongard’s problems for you to solve. Which approach will you choose?
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlett, the detective, Sherlock Holmes, describes his approach to his companion, Dr. Watson:
Let me see if I can make it clearer. Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.
In real life, the pattern-recognition approach is the approach of scientists who choose to see things for themselves instead of following the orthodoxy of their times — of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin in choosing to see the patterns instead of adhering to religious orthodoxy, and then of Albert Einstein and Gregor Mendel in choosing to see the deeper patterns instead of adhering to Newtonian and Darwinian orthodoxy.
In psychotherapy, too, there is the same choice of approaches. Some people think they are practising psychotherapy when in fact they are staring without comprehension at a pattern they cannot see.
The weak methods in psychotherapy are the questionnaires and libraries of research studies. The strong method is to learn the trick, to use that unconscious pattern-recognition capability of your brain, revealing the steam locomotive, the anagram, and the underlying rules.
As The Country Shrink remarked recently:
Life patterns and problems…prompt people to seek psychological help. Too often, this is not recognized
Different models of psychotherapy use different words to describe the patterns you are seeking. (In CBT, they may be described as maladaptive beliefs.) But all psychotherapy has this skill at its heart.