100 Things You Should Know About People: #49 — The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns

Examples of geons and objects

What do you see when you look at the x’s below?

xx    xx    xx    xx

Chances are you will say you see four sets of 2 x’s each. You won’t see them as 8 separate x’s. You interpret the white space, or lack of it, as a pattern.

People are great at recognizing patterns Recognizing patterns helps you make quick sense of all the sensory input that comes to you every second. Your eyes and your brain will want to create patterns, even if there are no real patterns there. Your brain wants to see patterns.

Individual cells respond to certain shapes In 1959, two researchers, Hubel and Wiesel showed that there are individual cells in the visual cortex of your brain that respond only to horizontal lines, other cells that respond only to vertical lines, other cells that respond to edges, and cells that respond only to certain angles. (In 1981 Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel price for their work on vision).

The Memory Bank Theory Even with Hubel and Wiesel’s work in 1959, for many years the prevailing theory of pattern recognition was that you have a memory bank that stores millions of objects, and when you see an object you compare it with all the items in your memory bank until you find the one that matches.

You recognize objects by simple shapes – But research now points to the idea that we recognize certain basic shapes in what we are looking at, and we use these basic shapes, called geons, to recognize objects. Irving Biederman came up with the idea of geons in 1985. It’s thought that there are 24 basic shapes that people recognize, and that these shapes are the building blocks of the objects we see and identify.

The picture at the beginning of this article shows examples of Biederman’s geons and how they are incorporated into objects for pattern recognition.


  • Use patterns as much as possible, since people will automatically be looking for them. Use grouping and white space to create patterns.
  • If you want people to recognize an object quickly, use a simple geometric drawing of the object. This will make it easier to recognize the underlying geons, and thus make the object easier and faster to recognize.

What do you think? Have you tried using simple shapes to create your drawings and icons for people to recognize?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Biederman, I., Human Image Understanding: Recent Research and a Theory in Computer Vision, Graphics and Image Processing, 1985, Elsevier.

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2 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #49 — The Brain Looks For Simple Patterns”

  1. That’s really good and interesting, I think I have learn about this in this book too:
    C. Ware. Information Visualization – Perception for Design. Morgan Kaufmann. 2004.

    Happy new year!

  2. Are there any examples of this principle being applied that you feel are particularly successful or noteworthy? (Or just plain done right)

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