Patterns in Nature

Patterns in Nature

Concentric tree rings. Shattered glass. A distant galaxy. The ribs of a lily pad. Why do our eyes spy the familiar pattern of a spiderweb in each?

The human brain is a superb pattern analysis machine. In his book The Ravenous Brain, Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor explains, “We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns..” There is a downside to this hunger for patterns. We often jump to conclusions, when there are none. Pareidolia, anyone?

Quote Source:

Images, in no particular order: Spider galaxy IC342 (, shattered glass (Michael Chase), spider web (Jacki,, Giant Amazonian Water Lily Leaf (unknown), tree ring cracks (unknown).


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66 Responses to Patterns in Nature

  1. shogun x says:

    Fractals abound…

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Still figuring out G+’s new album feature. Not sure why there are spaces between the images and why they were reordered from what I uploaded.

  3. Norman M. says:

    Pareidolia! Love the word, thanks.

  4. E.E. Giorgi says:

    fantastic pictures and post as always, Rajini. As a (bio) statistician, I wouldn’t have a job if the human brain didn’t look for patterns. We need patterns to describe what we see. I confess I’ve reached a cynical approach, as I believe that most of the time what we see is random, but, with data for example, we’ve built a nice apparatus (statistics) that helps us find the patterns. Because of publication bias and poorly done statistics, it’s easy to find patterns even when there aren’t any. It’s the findings that are repeated over and over that stand the randomness and then we can say we have a true fact. That’s how science works. So, my motto: don’t always believe statistics, you need repetition, too. 🙂

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Thank you for that insight, E.E. Giorgi . I agree, patterns can be our downfall too! Also, pattern recognition by machines and algorithms have still not matched our brains, so hopefully we will be in business a little while longer 😉

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Norman Ma , I love the word too. Also, apophenia which is even more melodic.

  7. Isn’t the human brain also a pattern? Firstly as with most, its a packing pattern that optimises volume. Secondly its constituents are a fractal in both space and time : if one were to be inside, it will be hard to tell what day it is or where we are no?

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh yes, the development of the brain (or any of our more mundane organs) is exquisitely patterned, sculpted and optimized for function. I’m of the school that believes that we can push our mental prowess a lot further if we better knew how to harness those patterns.

  9. Chad Haney says:

    I like Maria Popova’s brainpickings website. I just wish I had more time to read all the stuff I find on the interwebs.

  10. Rajini Rao About pattern recognition by machines, look my yesterday’s post about G+ image search:
    It’s great how it can detect so many abstract patterns, as children, hair, towers, buildings, beaches, tiles… And it’s gret too see the way it is fooled by some images (bamboo sticks as grass or hair, game coins as food…)

  11. Paul Magee says:

    Kevin Kelly likes a bit of gnarleyness.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    I’m usually sent to Brain Pickings by some search or other. I wish she (Popova) had more of a presence here on Plus.

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for the link, Víktor Bautista i Roca , I missed that post. I was also thinking of Google Image Search when I wrote this, and wanted to mention it,  but alas, I had no intelligent insight on the algorithm they use 🙂

  14. Actually, R.Dawkins make a very excellent analysis of the brain structure vs the cauliflower in his book Ancestor’s Tale, the homo habilis chapter.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    How did our brain fare versus the cauliflower in that analysis, Olivier Malinur ?

  16. Chad Haney says:

    Agreed Rajini Rao. Have a great holiday. I’ll check back after the BBQ.

  17. Depends who you speak of. I know some very sharp cauliflowers compared to some humans (note I didn’t say GOP members).

    More seriously, I cannot remember exactly, it’s a while I read the book but I think the structure of the brain and the cauliflower are similar because of a law between mass and metabolic rate.

    Our brain works with pattern but our main problem, intensified by western modern society, is that we used some analogs of stochastic algorithms to sort the world but we cannot accept stochastic answer. We always give and validate one single deterministic answer.

    Let me give an example: what time is it ? Our brain knows what range, useful for the stomach, the brain, the eyes etc… It is. Something like nap time in Ghana. But my colleagues will expect 15:22. Actually not. The first colleague is Nigerian, so she won’t be shock if I tell her “after 3”. My second colleague is Indian. He won’t be shock if I say “nap time”. My third colleague is Algerian. He will expect “Asr praying time”. Only my english, US or French colleagues will expect a deterministic answer (although the French…)

    This sounds like a joke but patterns carry by essence uncertainty and risk. If we want to use AI and data mining, our society will need to accommodate this risk and uncertainties, which it refuses absolutely presently.

    Why do you think Indians have produced some of the best brains in data mining ?

  18. Olivier Malinur I guess we Catalans are closer to those French you say. We measure hours in quarters, so 12.15 is one quarter of one, 12.30 two quarters of one and 12.45 three quarters of one. And in your case you could have said “one quarter and a half of four”, if you wanted to be accurate, but also “quarters of four” meaning any time between around 15.15 and around 15.45.

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Fascinating, thanks Olivier Malinur . My cauliflower is digesting your provocative questions.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    It’s the fellow gardener in me, Peter Lindelauf 🙂

  21. This is a great display of fractals Rajini Rao 

    What a great share

  22. Mary T says:

    Beautiful patterns Rajini Rao, great new words, and I also love Brain Pickings :).  Excellent post!

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Panah Rad and Mara Rose . I’m  experimenting with short posts that are accessible to many, mixed in with more technical, in depth science posts . Let me know if I’m getting the balance right or if you all prefer one type over the other 🙂

  24. Mary T says:

    I like them all Rajini Rao ~

  25. Panah Rad says:

    I like them all too. I enjoy your posts .

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    OK, thanks guys! 🙂

  27. Mony Obry says:

    Rajini Rao  To answer your question regarding the balance between technical and more accessible posts, I like it the way it is even though I don’t always understand all of it. At least it stimulates my “cauliflower”!

  28. RJ Matlock says:

    Archaean patterns from snowflakes to terozoic froozen water ripples ….Oh the gravity of it ALL

  29. Rajini Rao says:

    Mony Obry , awesome, thanks for the feedback. I know I can get technical pretty home I can tell by the rolling of their eyes, hard to know on G+ 🙂

    RJ Matlock , that sounds terribly poetic!

  30. Hemant Dave says:

    Rajini Rao thanks for all such tech posts! I like them all! Sometimes, I do not get it what you write (something related to biology), but most of time I understand it. You are doing a great service to us plussers! Human mind always tries to find reasons / motives for all actions… eventhough sometimes there is none. Finding patterns is part of it! Thanks again!

  31. Very nice !!!

    Have a great week Rajini Rao … 🙂

  32. John Kellden says:

    To one of the most awesome people in my circles: Rajini Rao :


  33. Rajini Rao says:

    I’m only the curator of awesome things! Jason Silva is infectiously enthusiastic, thanks for that wonderful link. Here’s wishing you have an awesome week ahead, John Kellden 🙂

  34. Thanks for another thought-provoking post Rajini Rao (Not to mention the new — to me — word… Pareidolia… will try not to bring it up in mixed company 🙂

  35. Tom Lee says:

    I’m a couple of days late on your post here Rajini Rao very nice pics and contents as usual. Thanks!

  36. Thanks E.E. Giorgi, very thought provoking assessment. I guess P.T. Barnum might have been wrong after all on the frequency of Suckers.

  37. Scott W says:

    Two words:  ‘polar coordinates’.  🙂

  38. Rajini Rao Pareidolia everywhere!  does he go on to give the most influential triggers for Pareidolia?  is it driven more strongly by fear or by desire?  i would think fear, no?

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    nomad dimitri , you’re right, fear/self-protection is a commonly ascribed explanation for pareidolia. The other is social, as Carl Sagan explained in The Demon-Haunted World, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”

  40. Awesome pictures, and nicely linked to neuroscience. Keep up the posts, tech, non-tech, punny–I love them all.

  41. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for that, Jyoti Dahiya !

  42. Rajini Rao ah, and you are quoting carl sagan, he was such a nice guy, prematurely gone…

  43. Sham dande says:

    i am curious about this subject

    very interesting

  44. This is really very interesting. For me as a believer,this may give me a hint that there is only one creator for the whole nature. Thanks for sharing.

  45. Sham dande says:

    what might be the diameter of the trunk

    & how do you calculate the age of the tree ?

  46. Thomas Kang says:

    Isn’t the human brain also a pattern? Firstly as with most, its a packing pattern that optimises volume. Secondly its constituents are a fractal in both space and time. . . .

    Suhail Manzoor What you said above reminded me of these two images:

    Olivier Malinur I have a feeling my brain will look like cauliflower with melted cheese — yum! Not yum my brain with melted, cheese, but rather the cauliflower. Not yum my brain with melted cauliflower, either, but rather yum my cauliflower with melted cheese (though it could be anyone’s cauliflower, not just mine). See, I told you someone put melted cheese in my brain.

  47. Thomas Kang says:

    Suhail Manzoor Sorry, forgot the link on account of all that melted cheese:

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Did we grill your cauliflower, Thomas Kang ? 🙂

  49. Thomas Kang says:

    After reading, Cauliflowers for Algernon, which is probably about the laboratory mouse used to grab the neuron image for the NY Times pic.

  50. Fasinating information given to us by smart phones,otherwise I would not know all of this!!!

  51. Ulf K. says:

    There is a very good book about this theme called “Formen in der Natur” (german: patterns in nature [edit] I just saw that it is originally a english book from publisher “Little, Brown and Company”, Boston from 1974) from Peter S. Stevens (I have the old 2nd edition at home).

  52. Rajini Rao says:

    That’s neat, Ulf K. . I didn’t find the English version when I searched for it. There was a different book called Art Forms in Nature with the prints of Ernst Haeckel. 

  53. Yasmin Ahmad says:

    That is because the god is one and he is create that to know that he is the one in this univer


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