• Mac Ling

Patterns & Habits

Updated: 6 days ago

Why do we find patterns in nature so alluring, and what can this teach us about recognizing and reorganizing our own habits?

"All the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk [below them].

- Leonardo Da Vinci

The Accented Note

Why are we, as humans, so attracted to patterns? Perhaps discovering, creating, or perceiving a pattern in something we once thought to be unordered chaos feels invigorating somehow—like the discovery of a secret. Patterns can reveal histories—the ripples left behind on a sand dune are the residue of the would-be ephemeral wind, or the sixfold symmetrical growth within a snowflake reflects the changing climatic conditions that transpired as it crystallized. We have built our newly technological world, after all, on the ability to harness the power of patterns in order to create coded algorithms that govern much of our daily actions; like computers, we choose one thing that makes sense for an initial present condition and then iterate it over several cases as they arise. Sometimes, our original habits are applicable; at other times, we find, they are either an irritation or an active hindrance.

It cannot be denied that many powerful things can be accomplished by recognizing and applying patterns. Our world would look very different today if we did not, like nature, organize at least some of our world according to this stunning regularity. Does it makes sense for us as humans, however, to aim to live entirely “algorithmically”? Does efficiency and habit (whether “good” or “bad”) leave enough room for creative accidents?

Let us consider the accented note in poetry. In poetic meter, it is often the note that lands on the unexpected accented “foot”, so to speak, that captures our attention. It “breaks” the rhythm, so we deem it most important because it is most apparent. Often, this purposeful deviation colors the flow of the piece as a whole—the entire piece is made for it, and it makes the piece. It does this because the piece has built an expectation and then (seemingly) defied it. This is a powerful tool for the artist and it can be an equally powerful tool, I argue, for the composition of our lives. In life, we seek to fulfill our expectations; in art, we delight in the moment of surprise that breaks them.

This month, I invite you first to analyze your own patterns and deviations with a non-judgmental eye, and then examine which habits you would like to reinforce or change. What patterns do you notice in your day, your week, your life? Are these patterns governed by necessity, choice, or neglect? What “unaccented notes” appeared in your life that were positive for you but were unaccounted for in your vision of the future? Have you left space for these moments in the future, for the delight of the subversion of expectation?

If we can feel the same curiosity for the patterns we notice in ourselves as we do when we spot the entrancing Fibonacci sequence in nature, the mere curiosity itself may help us shake the control that habits wield. We may keep in mind the advice of Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist-neuroscientist who studies habits and addiction, who states,

"What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations—oh, there's tightness, there's tension, there's restlessness—and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on."

In the exercises below, we will delve into some methods of habit analysis and conscious re-formation.

YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)

"Fully 43 percent of the time, our actions are habitual, performed without conscious thought." - Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick


In his bestselling book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes a three-part neurological phenomenon called "the habit loop." This loop, ascertained by a research team at MIT, consists of three mental phases:

  • The cue triggers your desire for a certain behavior.

  • The routine is your indulgence in the behavior you wish to change.

  • The reward is what you get out of the behavior once you engage in it.

[For example, a very basic loop may proceed like this: "Cue: A 'ding' for a new notification on your phone; Routine: Check your phone immediately; Reward: A 'like' on one of your posts, which feels good.]

Because this loop governs all habits, your brain has trouble differentiating "good" habits from "bad" ones—it can't filter the bad habits out for you, since it uses the exact same mechanism to reinforce the good ones. This makes disassociating from bad habits especially difficult. Using the exercise below, you can practice Charles Duhigg’s program of changing habits in order to identify and reframe any unhelpful patterns that currently organize your life.


The pattern corresponds to the "routine" portion of the loop; this consists of the set of behaviors that comprise your indulgence of the habit in question. Often, while the target habit itself can be easy to identify, the pattern that surrounds it is not—as when you listen to a piece of music, you can be carried along its predictable flow without stopping to think about how one note leads naturally to the next. Here, you may identify the undesirable behavior quickly; for instance: I will stop checking my phone. What we must also consider, Duhigg advises, is the pattern surrounding this behavior. What are the series of steps leading to and involved in your checking of your phone?


This is the why portion of your self-inquiry. Why exactly do you engage in this behavior—what do you receive from it that is pleasurable? For example, if the "bad habit" is binge-watching television shows, what is the reward for you? Distraction from work that you find unstimulating? Procrastinating on housework? A mental escape from an interpersonal conflict? Pure entertainment? Though many of us engage in the same habits, we all have vastly different personalities; thus, though the habit is equivalent, the craving that leads you to it may be unique. Your task in this portion of the process is to identify the craving behind the habit.

Duhigg makes two specific suggestions that may help you do this: Employ a 3 post-it method and set a timer for 15 minutes. First, choose one of your craving hypotheses to test. Indulge that craving using a different "habit" (if you're watching tv to avoid answering e-mails, for example, then try going to the gym for half an hour to accomplish that same end). As soon as you complete the substitute activity, write down the first three words/feelings/reflections/etc that come to mind. Then, 15 minutes later, ask yourself: Was my craving satisfied? The in-the-moment impressions you wrote on your post-its should help you figure this out. If you still feel the urge for the behavior, you haven't addressed the correct craving; repeat this pattern with a new craving.


The cue that signals the craving for the behavior also may not be as obvious as you think. Duhigg cites research that has isolated the following as common categories of cues:

  • Location: Where were you?

  • Time: Was it a specific hour of the day?

  • Emotional State: How were you feeling when the craving came over you?

  • Other People: Does being around or thinking about certain people increase this craving?

  • Immediately preceding action: What did you do right before performing the habit?

You will have to record this information regarding several instances of you indulging in your "bad habit." After 3-5 instances, a pattern should become clear. Now, you have isolated the cue for your habitual behavior.


Habits are unconscious; on auto-pilot, we mindlessly follow the loop of cue-routine-reward that we have patterned for so long (thus leaving our mind free to focus on other things, never addressing the habit itself). In this step, we will return consciousness to the unconscious action.

  • When the cue is imminent, be aware of it.

  • Create a stringent plan to do a certain "behavior" INSTEAD of your habit when presented with this cue. (For example, if you know that you tend to play too many video games after dinner, force yourself to do your "alternate desirable behavior" to satisfy the same craving.) It is important to choose the very concrete plan beforehand so that you can stick to it when the moment comes.

This step will feel uncomfortable and difficult, because you will find yourself needing to make conscious choices about aspects of your life that you had previously performed without pause. It may feel like a waste of time; it may feel easier or more efficient to stick to your habit. If you persevere, though, you will likely be able to re-train your brain for a different habit loop that will soon feel just as automatic as the habit-to-replace. Habits are not inherently bad, after all—they are useful in us, just as they are in nature. They allow things to run smoothly, if only we choose the right ones.


Why do the ram's horns curl? What is the inherent wonder in the idea that the spirals of a snail shell mimic the movements of galaxies? This similarity may strike us as unexpected, at first glance, because we generally don't categorize snails and galaxies in the same realm of thought—one is a creature and the other is an astronomical formation. However, if we re-ordered our world according to some of the natural patterns below (as opposed to other equally arbitrary distinctions), we might find that some of the most familiar items stand steadfastly alongside ever so unlikely companions.

The following are some of the categories of natural patterns covered in Philip Ball's Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does. (I highly encourage you to track down the physical book to take a look at the startlingly beautiful photographs that accompany these points!).


"Pattern comes from the (partial) destruction of symmetry," Ball writes. He explains that symmetry-breaking is nature's way of taking something uniform and creating difference. If you rotate a coral that expresses radial symmetry, for example, it will look identical only every few degrees (imagine if this were not the case—if it looked entirely identical no matter how much we rotated it, it would be a mere circle). "The more symmetry that gets broken," Ball explains, "the more subtle and elaborate the pattern."


Unlike symmetry, which is usually strikingly apparent to the human eye, fractals often look chaotic; sometimes, no obvious organizing system seems to present itself. Imagine a coastline, however, or the twigs of a tree. Notice that whether you zoom in or out, the structure of each smaller frame is actually somewhat of a copy of the structure of the larger frame (from an airplane—presuming you lack other items for scale and differentiation—it is actually extremely difficult to gauge how much of a mountain range you are looking at, because it seems to repeat itself). Ball describes the formation of trees as though they form the tracery of an algorithm that we can intuitively sense: Once it is fed the "rule" about when and how to branch, the tree repeats this rule until the end of its life. Even though it may not look to us as orderly as a honeycomb, we still have some sense that there is a hardbound logic that underlies these forms. Algorithms teaching small angles and straight branches, Ball explains, form poplar-like networks; wide angles and twisting branch instructions, meanwhile, create oaks. Consider the Romanesco cauliflower: every floret looks like the whole, and every piece looks like the floret:

The process of fractal branching at different scales is put to excellent use in the human body: our capillaries are essentially fractals that follow the pattern of "rules" provided to the bifurcated lungs and their associated vessels at smaller and smaller scales. The ability to easily "scale up" this branching structure is incredibly energy-efficient for the organism.


Why do such a variety of things seem to choose to grow in spiral form? The logarithmic spiral of nature—that which is found in snail shells and ram's horns—provides a convenience for creatures with hard shells: Without changing the shape of the existing spiral, it allows them to add mass by building an "extension" of a new semi-parallel side in which the new wall essentially grows slightly faster than the existing one did; this affects the otherwise straight line-nature of growth, resulting in a spiral shape (you can try this experiment easily by walking while taking bigger steps with one leg than with the other—your path will automatically start to curve). Fluids tend to create a similar spiral shape, known on both large and small scales as the Coriolis effect, which is caused by the drag on molecules affecting growth at different rates. In fact, you might notice—if you were to see them side by side without scale—that the swirls around the eye of a hurricane and the spirals at the central node of a hard-shelled mollusk look nearly indistinguishable.


So now, having looked at just a few of examples of symmetries, fractals, and spirals, what can we conclude is responsible for such an aesthetic affinity amongst seemingly disparate things? According to the Scottish zoologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson in 1917, "Everything is what it is because it got that way." In other words, he meant, the way things look reflect how they grew—what we see when we see similarity in patterns among objects, then, is a common trajectory of these items' histories, writ in their visual residue. Once we recognize that the same physical forces govern all things in our universe, it should begin to become less surprising that the patterns of veins that shuttle blood throughout our bodies effectively mimic the water networks that encircle the planet. As physicist Richard Feynman so aptly proclaimed:

"Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry."

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

For a more in-depth discussion of the methods described above (as well as a more comprehensive description of its neuroscientific underpinnings), you may choose to read Duhigg's book in its entirety. In his study, Duhigg also explains the ramifications of the habit loop as exploited by the commercial and advertising worlds.

"A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit" by Judson Brewer (TEDTalk)

In this TEDTalk, Brewer discusses how to manage cravings through the use of mental gymnastics—specifically, by convincing yourself that the habit in question is a matter of curiosity.

"Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension" (Documentary - Youtube)

This documentary gives a mathematical background on fractals amidst stunning visuals that analyze its structure.

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does by Philip Ball

This beautiful coffee table book seeks to reveal the "surprising underlying unity in the kaleidoscope of the natural world" with a photographic and scientifically descriptive tour through chapters such as "Symmetry," "Flow and Chaos," and "Bubbles and Foam."

"Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits?" by Jerome Groopman (The New Yorker)

This article analyses the role of conscious decision-making and willpower in our lives, suggesting that it often fails in instances that have been "chunked" into our brains as habits. Drawing upon various threads of research, this article advises—among other things—that making bad habits more inconvenient (increasing the "friction") may be our best defence.

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