Pattern recognition Archives


  • Are you the one who despises intuition, or are you the one who respects it?
  • Are you the one who thinks intuition is a word coined to cover the criterion-free and otherwise arbitrary decisions?
  • Are you the one who neglects the power of intuition in favor of a rational thought? The thought can be explained in the end, right?
  • Or, on the contrary, are you the one who believes that intuition is a mystical revelation for a chosen few?

Nothing more wrong than any of the above.

Intuition is not more than you think it is. It is much more! Much, much more.

Let me explain.

Are you the one who dwells in analysis? If so, perhaps you don’t pay sufficient respect to intuition. Perhaps you think intuition is run by emotional triggers, or it is a woo-woo phenomenon of emotionally unbalanced people. While it is true that

  • intuition may lead you astray (when undeveloped), and
  • it does not follow a rational conclusion of a detailed analysis,

intuition offers a unique approach to a more effective and satisfying living. And this is good enough to start using it.

Intuition is available to you and me at any time. It is not a magical power offered to a few individuals. It is a skill of a conscious person.

Intuition is a point of inner knowing, your inner knowing that happens now, in this very moment. Intuition is a creative workshop, a meeting place in which your consciousness is an artist who creates a new insight by blending knowledge, perception and feelings. It  is a new phenomenon arising by a higher level combination of a rational thought and emotion. In an active process of knowing.

This intuitive act is about delivering something new, similarly as you create a new color, green, by mixing blue and yellow in proportion, or as hydrogen and oxygen molecules are connected to create water. Such combinations have qualities that are way beyond the qualities of the ingredients themselves.

Key understanding

Being more practical: the idea behind intuition is threefold.

  1. First, it is your powerful subconscious mind that is able to process an amazing amount of information and read your senses and emotions. All without you being able to describe it.
  2. Secondly, it heavily relies on the non-verbalized tacit knowledge. It is the know-how that is built by experience and your own understanding and models of these experiences.
  3. Thirdly, there is a conscious spark. Call it imagination, inspiration, God’s guidance or wisdom in a moment. It is the spark, the joyful observer in you that combines the tacit knowledge and emotion into an insight.

So, the key understanding is this. Intuition is largely about … pattern recognition.

Yes, indeed. Intuition relies on a sophisticated pattern recognition system thanks to which you are able to evaluate both external and internal cues, perceive non-verbalized unspoken information, recognize patterns, discriminate between typicalities and anomalies and draw a conclusion in an instant.

Consequently, your intuition is usually lame when you enter a new field or encounter a new idea. It develops with learning, experience and reflection. What is means is that intuition can be trained.  It is great news, isn’t it? Because you can take a conscious effort in developing it.

Developing intuition

As any pattern recognition system intuition can be trained by examples. These are events, learning points and experiences. What you need are examples of standard situations and examples of outliers, atypical cases or anomalies. And as explained in the posts about learning accurate concepts and generalization, you need many more outliers and atypical examples than the typical ones in order to refine your concepts well. Your exposure to a variety of cases, analyzed or experienced, forms your data. Your inner understanding and the building of mental models are your generalizations.

Hence, the richer and wilder the experience and the better the understanding, the greatest your intuition (can be). And the other way around. The poorer your experience, the worse your intuition.

In other words: intuition sucks when you have not laid your foundation well: the data of experiences and the learned generalizations from  your reflection. So, yes, intuition may lead you to poor choices in the beginning, but it greatly improves with experience. With training, it leads to effective and fast choices. And of a high quality.

Intuition heavily relies on spotting the patterns and an instantaneous evaluation of such internal and external cues. It communicates with you with a bodily emotion, such as the feeling of “this is right” or “this is to be done”. How you feel it in your body is your personal experience. You may simply know the answer or direction, imagine it, hear it or even sense it. You may have a gut feeling about it. You may feel expansion in your body or a feeling of congruence.

How do you recognize that the feeling comes from your intuition? You recognize it because it guides you toward knowing in a moment and being in integrity with yourself. There is no fear, no rush but a state of calmness in which you clearly see, sense or know what to choose. It takes practice to tell the difference between intuition and other contributions such as ego, rational mind or emotional mind.

The only way to learn is by following intuition (or what it seems as intuition), see the results and learn from feedback. You need to trust.

Experts rely on intuition

Experts collect and ensemble patterns to quickly make sense of what is happening. Note that these patterns are not facts, neither rules, nor procedures. They are constructs built from knowledge, abstract prototypes and intuits derived from all the experiences the experts have lived through and heard about.

Professionals in any field rely on intuition. While standard situations can usually be covered by a set of procedures and rules, any deviation from the typicality asks for much more. And this is an every day experience for all of us. What we learn from leaflets, protocols and books has to be evaluated and refined by experience. Oftentimes, there is a gap between theory (written knowledge) and practice. Practice and experience lead to the development of your personal inner knowing.

And this is what makes the difference between mediocre and passionate. Between average and professional. Between boring and interesting. It is the use of intuition. As simple as that.

The learning point

In summary, what you need to understand is that an intuitive act happens in a given moment. It draws from learned concepts, generalizations and experiences. It is where your rational thinking and detailed analysis serve their roles – to form the mental models. Once these models are formed, they provide a model base for an intuition to act. Perception, senses and the emotional feeling provide the ‘green’ light  for the direction to choose. This intuitive knowing is painted in a moment from learned experience, recognized patterns and your feeling and judgement about the situation.

The good news is this. Your intuition is fed by experience, reflection and understanding. The richer your experience in a given subject, the better your intuition can be. The more you apply it, the stronger it becomes.

In the chaos and floods of information, intuition is not merely a tool. It becomes a necessity for making informative decisions and living your life fully.

Don’t let it slip your attention.

Your intuition is at work. Train it. Test it. Master it.


The image above is by my friend David.


This is a follow-up for the post on rational decision making. And first, a boring but important bit:

“Most theories of choice assume that decisions derive from an assessment of the future outcomes of various options and alternatives through some type of cost-benefit analyses. The influence of emotions on decision-making is largely ignored. The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level.”

From the Abstract of “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage” by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55, 30-40, 2004.

I want a meal

Just imagine you go to a restaurant. It turns out to be a lovely restaurant, much nicer than you have expected.

There is a classy look and feel to the place. You enter … and you are exposed to distinct but subtle smells. You like it there. You like the modern design and the combination of colors: red, orange, brown and black. The place welcomes you. It feels perfect to sit down, relax and celebrate life with a meal.

Looking at a menu, you find a number of appealing choices. What to choose? Would you eat beef or chicken today? Hmm…. What about crunchy salad or delicious pasta, instead?

But … wait.

Shouldn’t you be rational about your choices?  Of course, you should.

Please take a piece of paper and make a list of important features characterizing the meals. Let’s look at the estimated protein content, estimated fat content, estimated carbs content,  calories count, minerals and vitamins and many more. Let’s analyze what you have eaten so far, this morning, this day, this week. This month? Let’s incorporate this knowledge to the feature list. And let’s work on the weighting scheme of the features. Anything missing? Take your time…

Done? O.K. Let’s now consider a meal representative for every meat / veg option. Since it’s an evening meal we want to optimize the protein content and minimize the carbs content. But we also want to have a tasty meal. How to optimize this?

I personally don’t know and I stop here.

In fact, I even don’t start such an analysis. I choose the minimalist’s approach of following my gut. Straight and simple. What about  you?

Is it possible to follow any rational analysis concerning what your body needs at this very moment? Perhaps it is, when you limit your choices.  But in general, you will either ask the waiter for a recommendation, choose the cook’s meal of the day or decide what you feel like eating, will you not?

The importance of emotions

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been doing an interesting research. He studied people with the brain damage who lost the ability of feeling emotions. What he found out was surprising to say at least. The decision making process has become seriously impaired for such people. Having a number of options available, they couldn’t decide what to eat or what to wear. There was simply no rationally defined cost-function to optimize between similar options. Lack of emotions set them in a deadlock, with no way out.

We learn from this that emotions are essential in decision making. Even more, Damasio proposes that emotions cannot be separated any longer from our reasoning. We may simply not recognize them in what we receive as a rational thought. Read the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, where Damasio discusses how parts of the brain, related to perception of emotions, continually communicate with other parts of the body through electrical and chemical signals. The body is sending information to the brain and the brain is replying, or even initiating communication. And although thoughts and feelings are separate “information systems”, they continually talk to each other. It is our conscious self which discriminates where the emphasis lies.

See also a 3-min video of Damasio here

The heart – brain system

Damasio’s thesis is similar to the one discussed by David Servan-Schreiber, a clinical psychiatrist, about the heart-brain system, where guts and other organs reporting to the heart all together communicate with the brain. What he emphasizes is the heart coherence for our optimal functioning. Read his interesting book Healing without Freud or Prozac.

We feel feelings in the body in profound ways, such as butterflies in the stomach when we are stressed or physical lightness when we are happy. Emotions are grounded in the body. Hormones such as adrenaline creates feelings of anxiety, while oxytocin creates feelings of blissful love. Not only face expression, but also the whole body posture reflects the feelings. And the other way around,  by taking a specific posture and look we may evoke related feelings.

David Servan-Schreiber points to the early work of Andrew Armour and others that both heart and digestive system have their own networks of neurons which, although much smaller and more primitive than those of the brain, act as small brains with their own form of perception and reaction. It means that the heart (and gut) has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. As a result, both heart and guts are capable of acting independently of the brain – to learn, remember, and even sense.  How impressive is that!

Emotions are essential

Both Damasio and Servan-Schreiber explain how essential emotions are. Of course, there are different levels and degrees of you following them. Emotional decision making works by going towards the fulfilment of an emotional need. What you optimize is your perceived-to-be feeling of happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction. So, the preferred choice works towards such a goal. In the extreme case, however, emotional decision making is driven by our biological wiring for an instant gratification in some form.

As humans we are not good at planning and thinking long term. Instead, we live in a short frame of time. Uhm… we want this yummy cake and a mocha coffee. And we want them now. And the next day, the pattern repeats. And the next day as well. We want coffee and we want a cake. We may do it every day even though we rationally know that these choices contribute to a possibly devastating effect on our health some years from now. Most advertisements and sales pitches intelligently push the instant gratification button. And we are usually good at rationalizing such choices and explaining them to ourselves. We deserve our buy, don’t we?.

  • How many times did you buy something to only find out it was a miss later on?
  • How many times did you eat junk food to regret it later? Well, of course, you have to work on this important project and don’t have the time for cooking. Who does it, anyway, nowadays?
  • How many times did you sleep long instead of committing to morning exercises you wanted to? You simply did not feel like getting up so early this morning, right?

Following emotions … it’s a part of the story

I believe emotions are crucial in decision making. While rational analysis prepares the ground and enumerates possible options, emotions have the ability to simplify complex weighting of choices and calculations. They simply reduce and limit our reasoning, and thereby make reasoning possible. Or more effective.

However, I do not advocate to go with the emotional decision making per se unless you are experienced in handling your emotions. The danger is that we may allow ourselves to be totally driven by emotions and loosing ourselves. In such a situation we identify with currents of emotions and become the power station of feelings. Very intense. We forget our conscious self guarding us in the moment of now. This is what may happen in heated discussions, when people fall in love or when we emotionally identify with the idea we are going to defend with our lives. The rise of unleashed emotions leads to a flood.

The powerful integration

One-sided approaches miss a lot of information.  They are not the answer. What I like to see is to give respect to both contributions: rational analysis and emotions, maintaining a coherent balance. None of them individually equips you with the tools to make the most informative decisions.

Effective decision making simply has to address emotional and rational elements of our being. Both emotion and cognition/rational thought are separate but interacting systems, each with its unique intelligence.

What is their successful integration, do you think?

My answer is intuitive decision making. What is your answer?


Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr


The series of posts on decision making



  • How come you have applied the best strategies to make the best decision, yet the solution you arrived at did not stand against the expectations?
  • How come you have spent so much time on analyzing the data, but the solution did not bring the happiness you were after?
  • How come you have dissected the problem so well, yet the solution was only mediocre?

How I made a rational decision

Ten years ago I was buying my first laptop ever for work and I could freely choose the one I wanted. Laptops were very expensive then so I wanted to make the best decision possible.

What did I do?

I took it very seriously. I spent a whole month studying information on the Internet about available laptops. Although I defined a few important characteristics, it still left me with more than 150 possible laptops. I was studying reviews, people who commented on user’s experience, and multiple indices and statistics.

In meantime, my colleagues made their choices. It took them perhaps 1-2h to decide for particular Asus laptops. Then they were teasing me on my being stuck at multi-objective optimization. They had lots of fun at my decision making process.

Finally, I arrived at a perfect laptop, the best combination of memory, hard disc, video graphics, speed of processor, touch pad etc. To my surprise, happiness did not follow. Despite my lengthy ration decision making process, the laptop didn’t serve me well. It turned out into a horrible experience.

It was a laptop that had never worked. I mean, it worked with simple tasks, but most of the time there was something wrong with the touchpad, mouse or keyboard that prevented me from working smoothly. It contributed to months of frustration.

The laptop went through multiple repairs until I lost patience and abandoned it completely. I was crushed, especially that the other Asus laptops worked like charm.

I learned my lesson then. With gratitude.

Th next time when I was buying a laptop, I gave myself a few hours to make a decision. Most of that time was devoted to learning about possible options and laptop characteristics. The decision itself took a split of a second.

First, I decided to buy Asus. Next, I asked my colleagues for suggestions (read: learn what experts say) about current best features to optimize for the tasks I would need to perform. Finally, I studied available Asus laptops and made a choice which was the most appealing. I simply chose a laptop that felt right. In addition, I mentally decided to make it work for me. And it was a great buy indeed. It worked like a charm, too.

What’s the point of this story?

Rational decision making

In general, there are three approaches to decision making: rational, emotional and intuitive (or any combination of these if processed sequentially). In the rational decision making scenario you:

  • Define the case and the decision to be made.
  • Identify the features (characteristics) of the problem.
  • Identify the criteria for the result.
  • Analyze all possible solutions.
  • Predict goodness-of-fit = calculate consequences of the solutions based on their ability /likelihood of fulfilling the criteria.
  • Choose the best option.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but it is not. Why? Because rational decision making relies on a few strong assumptions:

  1. All options are possible to consider.
  2. There are descriptive features for the task.
  3. There is a clear way (function) to evaluate the future consequences of the features.
  4. There is a well-defined criterion for the result.
  5. There is one best outcome.

In reality these pre-suppositions often do not hold. First, it may be hard to choose a few important features and a performance measure as a function of the features. Even if you define the most important features, you may also include others weighed appropriately to reflect their importance. Secondly, it may be impossible to evaluate all options. Next, it may be hard to judge the goodness of the result from an external point of view. Finally, there may be multiple solutions.

The challenge of the rational approach is there because we hardly ever have well defined features and a performance (or error) measure available for optimization. What we usually encounter are situations of multi-objective optimization. This means that we have a few criteria or error measures that we want to optimize simultaneously. Since the criteria are often interconnected, one needs to pre-define either a linear or nonlinear trade-off. And this is hard if not impossible beforehand.

To make things worse, we are not always sure whether some of the features need to be considered as part of  the criterion-hood 😉 If you are in the field of multi-objective optimization then you know that this is not a straightforward task. The solution lies somewhere on the so-called Pareto front, which is a surface of multiple solutions.

Consider this scenario

Imagine you want to buy a laptop. If your only criterion is cost then you can optimize it easily by buying the cheapest laptop available. Yet, this is not what you want.

Say, you are a programmer/researcher and you want a laptop with a fast processor and a large memory. Moreover, it has to be light because you want to carry it around while running memory-exhaustive applications. But you are also picky about some user-experience features.

You have strong opinions about keyboards and you only like the ones with a certain softness. Moreover, you hate flashy buttons and you would like to a laptop with plain keyboard only. You want to buy the cheapest laptop under the constraints mentioned above. Some can be quantified by numerical characteristics (memory size) while others may not (softness of the keyboard).

If you are given an upper limit of money, you may decide to sacrifice hard disc space for a large RAM memory. What also happens is that some of the features (such as large RAM and big hard disc) may be put into the goodness-of-fit criterion in which you will be looking for a trade-off between cost and the size of memory and storage.

What should be a trade-off?

You will usually not define it explicitly but analyze a number of options usually hesitating between a few. At that point, the solutions will differ by different nonlinear trade-offs of the individual features. Making a rational choice would require the definition of the optimal trade-off function, which is often impossible.

Consequently, you will either analyze the few choices endlessly to collect more outside evidence (extra features that will enter the equation), such as reviews and opinions or you will make a decision by emphasizing which feature is the most important (say, cost).

However, you may also follow a different route by fixing the laptop’s weight to a certain range (as a feature) and then define a good trade-off between the sizes of  memory and hard disc.

Do you see what I mean? There is an inherent difficulty to define well-descriptive features, their importance weights or the goodness-of-fit measure.

The curse of dimensionality

Let’s look at the features now. In the field of statistical learning there is a famous phenomenon called “the curse of dimensionality”, “overtraining” or “Rao’s paradox”. I will explain it below because it has an impact on our decision making process.

Originally, we may assume that the more details (features) of the case we collect, the better the description of the situation we have at hand. The more details, the better quality of the description and the more informative decision.

Counter-intuitively, it is is not valid.

Let’s consider the traditional statistical learning. If you take a single model and keep adding features (details) to see how well your model is doing according to a chosen error measure or performance criterion you will observe a very particular behavior.

If you keep the number of observations (say laptops to consider, people, etc) fixed but you add more and more features (details), the error will originally decrease, only to steadily increase after a while. See the image to the right.  If we look at a goodness-of-fit function, it will behave the other way around. It will originally increase with the increasing number of features and steadily decrease after a while. This happens after a sufficient number of features is reached.

What we are saying here is this:

There is a certain point after which adding new details becomes useless, and moreover, they may work against your model (error measure or goodness-of-fit function).  You are going to get worse results.

Incredible, isn’t it?

Human decision making

Consider now human decision making.

There is a consultant who looks at symptoms of a difficult cancer case and has to make a decision whether to send the patient to an operation or radiotherapy. There is a company CEO who analyzes multiple indices of the company performance (sales, cash-flow, marketing strategies etc) and has to decide about the next strategy of growth. And there is you to choose your laptop, your university, your holiday destination, your next job, your house, your wife and so on.

Well if you take the same analogy as above to a human decision making based on the data, we may conclude that the quality (performance) of the decision will initially increase up to a few features (pieces of information) and deteriorate if you start adding more features. Or in terms of errors, the error of the decision will initially decrease up to a few features and increase if you keep including more.

Our rational mind is unable to juggle more than 3-7 pieces of information in a given moment.

We cannot possibly weight say 20 features and optimize trade-offs between multiple criteria in our minds to get the best decision. The reason is simple. There are too many variables of different kinds and too complex models (non-descriptive features, nonlinear relations between features, multiple or nested criteria, vague goodness-of-fit function, etc) and the optimum is simply not uniquely defined. The optimum is not a point but merely a surface of possible solutions for various trade-offs.

And you lack a meta criterion to tell you which trade-off to emphasize.

Rational analysis: a brief how-to

The learning point is as follows. If you want to stick to a rational decision making, constrain your problem and the solution path sufficiently:

  1. Select a few well-defined features (characteristics, descriptions), ideally not more than seven.
  2. Choose a simple criterion.
  3. Choose a simple goodness function or performance measure.

For instance, you may consider a case with  “yes”/”no” decisions described by  a number of binary features (“yes”/”no”) and a simple goodness-of-fit function calculated by a weighted average of feature contributions. Or you may have a complex model (in your working brain) but you only rely on a few well-defined features. This will work well.

In the cases above you can define optimal decisions given the limited framework. In many other cases, however, your rational decision is suboptimal because you cannot define your necessary features and criteria well. Moreover, your suboptimally best decision will likely be not the best because you have missed a feature or modification that you were unaware of at the time of decision making but which will largely influence the situation.

In addition, too much data and too much information will inhibit your decision making. You may simply get stalled in a surface of a few possible solutions which optimize the features and criteria in different ways. And you will not know how to choose a meta goodness-of-fit function to select one and only best solution. So, you will hesitate or wait for ages until you get tired and pick an arbitrary solution from the permitted ones.

So, what is the best approach for complex situations?

Is it emotional decision making???


This is added by my friend Bob.

It is fascinating that computers as well as humans suffer from the “curse of dimensionality”, or confusion by details. This phenomenon was objectively measured in many experiments. The results of an early one, from the 70’s, is shown in the image to the right.  It is an old scan of an old paper, so please forgive the quality. It shows that the accuracy of the diagnosis of a group of 100 medical experts first increases and then decreases as a function of the number of medical tests (symptoms) that are being considered. This points to the fact that in a large medical examination always some problem may be found. May be there is nothing wrong in it, just the result of statistics!


Photo courtesy Jamie Frith, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.


The series of posts on decision making


Despite the elegance and necessity of generalization, there is however a danger to its use. It is the case when we generalize from examples which are unrepresentative for the given concept. If this happens, they are often too few in number. When I say “unrepresentative” I mean that the examples do not sufficiently illustrate the characteristics of the concept. They usually show only either the most common view or are one-sided.

Such a generalization is called hasty generalization.

A simple example is to conclude that “it is always sunny in London” after a few perfect sunny days there. As a tourist, of course ;). While the fallacy of this example is obvious, it is a pattern we follow in our lives without noticing it. How many times did you make general statements about politicians, parties, men, women, kids, your co-workers, countrymen, etc after a single evidence? More times than than you think you did.

There is also a fallacy of sweeping generalization when you generalize from a particular case to either a general case or a broad range, while the evidence you have does not support the general case. For instance, by seeing double decker buses in London you conclude that there are double deckers in all places in the UK. It is clearly a sweeping generalization.

Hasty generalization in life

In life hasty generalization often coincides with sweeping generalization, but not always. They occur especially when we become narrow and fixated on a specific point of view. Notably, it is often a negative point of view. An example of such generalizations are beliefs that “women are bad drivers” or that “I always fail when I attempt something new”.

When you learn a concept or derive a generalization, use as many examples as possible, or as practical. A few examples may serve us well in learning concepts of common objects or abstract ideas. The important point to remember is to refine the once-learned concept when there is such a need.

A need arises when we encounter uncommon or atypical examples still supporting the concept. Also an update of the concept may be necessary when you encounter interesting “negative” examples, which are examples that lie outside of the concept. (See also here.) Otherwise, our concept will either be too narrow or too broad, leading to inaccurate predictions or wrong decisions.

Hasty or sweeping generalizations are often in effect by allowing ourselves for drastic simplifications. These often rely on a few one-sided experiences. Such examples may lead us to a rule, belief or generalization to which we stick for years, without ever questioning. And this has a profound effect on our lives.

For example, having an installed belief that you always fail when attempting something new, there is simply no way to pursue a new carrier even if you feel drawn to. Why? Because you will fail. Obvious, isn’t it?

Examples of hasty generalization

Remember how common it is. A few one-sided examples in life make you often conclude or believe certain things. A few harsh comments on your drawings as a child could have made you believe you were unable to draw at all. A few bad notes from math could have made you believe you were an idiot. A few unsuccessful dates could have made you believe you were unattractive and would never find a partner. For sure, you can name many more here.

This is a step in which we make a rule based on a few unrepresentative examples. The bad part is that once a rule is made , it always applies. Note how this is reflected in our language – by the use of general operators (all, always, never etc) and modal operators (cannot or can). For instance: “I always write bad reports”, ” I am not good at math”, “He never listens to me”, “(All) men are lazy”, etc.

The danger lies in the fact that when a generalization is made it becomes operational for us. We are using it on an automatic pilot. Subconsciously.

To break it, you need to become conscious first. In practice, it means you need to pay attention to the language you use. Then, you need to be open for a new learning and change. Your working generalizations often come from hasty judgements or observations and will show up in the use (or silent use) of general and modal operators.

Be aware that such, often negative, generalizations do not serve you. Expose them by looking at atypical examples or contrary evidence.

So, if you believe you cannot succeed at new endeavors, recall a few situations in which you succeeded in something. For instance, when you went to a school, it was a completely new experience, yet you succeeded in finishing it. When you started driving, it was a new skill to learn, and yet you got your license. Or when you looked for a job in the past you found the one you have right now. Clearly, these examples show you can succeed at new things. Count them in and refine your concept.

Studying successful examples, your circumstances, your determination, your way of working, etc can shed light on the conditions under which you succeed. 

A good question to ask is this: “What do I need (or what does it need to happen) to make me succeed at this new attempt?” Identify the supporting circumstances and needs and take care of them.

Refine your generalization

Please acknowledge the remarkable ability of your mind to generalize from (a few) cases. But … pay attention when this happens by using a few typical or otherwise limited examples only.

Pay attention.
Be aware.

Look for uncommon, outlier situations or examples from your life. Take an effort to notice them. If they contradict the examples on which your concept is built, know that the generalization you use is wrong. You need an update. Do it. It is an internal process of thinking, letting the related emotions flow and a mental re-organization of the concept.

Learning points

Generalization is the basic skill of an intelligent mind.  Adore it but do not become its slave.

  • Pay attention to your thinking patterns.
  • Be open to question what you have learned.
  • Be open to refine or even abandon your concepts so that they serve you in the best way possible. The best way is defined by you, but means something along the lines of progress, joy, development, balance or fulfillment.
  • Remain flexible in your learning and allow yourself to update categories.
  • Treat your concepts as “works in progress” and do not get too serious about them. When you are serious you tend to get stiff and fixated on a single point of view.
  • Learn as a child, with awe, amazement, joy and fun.

Find this ability back in yourself! It is there.


Photo copyright by Moyan Brenn. Photo available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.


Learning and generalization posts:



increase intelligence by concept learning

Let’s  look at some basic questions, which are nevertheless insightful:

  • How enthusiastic are you about learning?
  • How flexible are you?
  • How do you keep up with the fast pace of our changing world?

Whatever your answers to the questions above I hope you recognize the importance of intelligence. It helps you to tackle problems more effectively. It facilities a life of growth. It makes difficult choices easier.

Would you like to increase intelligence?

I bet your answer is “yes”.

There is a simple practice you can install in your mind: creating accurate and up-to-date concepts about the surrounding world. By concepts we understand mental representations of an object, idea, activity, living creature or phenomenon. Whatever we see, hear, feel or encounter in our lives, goes through mental processes of our brains.

For instance, when we learn what an apple is, we learn a concept of a class of apples in the from of a mental representation of the encountered apples  or an abstract idea of an apple.

We are people of the patterns

We are people of the patterns. We create patterns in our lives, art, work and products. Whatever we do it bears the very characteristic of our whole being. It’s hardly possible, even if at all, for you to create something that is completely not like you. Try it. And report to me if you are successful, because I will find it extremely interesting ;).

I challenge you to write a genuine piece of text that is perceived not like yours. Try to cook a meal which is not like yours. Try to make a design that is completely dissimilar with your previous designs. Try to continuously speak or walk in ways that are 100% alien to you. Try to make something creative that is completely different from who you are. Even attempting this feels weird.

The reason is that at any moment we are attracted to specific ideas or concepts that we live by. These are specific patterns. They permeate our whole being including consciousness, feelings and thoughts.

These drive our actions. When we act, take decisions, make judgements or create something, we derive them from our internal resources. Whatever the output, it is going to bear the watermark patterns of who we are.

Because patterns are so prevalent in our lives, we are very efficient at finding patterns and recognizing traits. Finding patterns relies on noticing the differences and perceiving similarities. We learn concepts, classes or categories after having observed the patterns.

Classification / categorization is essential

A class or category is a group or collection of objects, things, events or experiences that have something in common; there is an underlying similarity.

In this light, any given object or experience is a representative of its class. At the same time any given object may belong to multiple classes, nested or not. For instance, there is a class of oaks which is a subclass of leafy trees, which is a subclass of trees.  Or, there is a class of bananas and there is a class of fruits that you like which includes ripe bananas (but not unripe ones).

Without classes or categories, every object and every experience would be novel, interesting and puzzling. No doubt, this would lead you to a thrilling life of ever fresh experiences, yet without understanding and learning. You would not be able to organize your experiences into meaningful ways.

As a result, you would not be able to tell whether something is a carrot, chair or car, or whether it is useful or friendly. You would not be able to survive.

Have you ever observed how a small child learns to recognize an object?

There are two levels to it: unconscious and conscious classes of experience. Before using a language, a very small child forms unconscious classes of objects or experience. He basically goes through a certain experience and recognizes when something similar happens again. This informal grouping relies on some observable similarity.

An example is a child experiencing an enormous joy in a repetition of a certain play; I bet you’ve seen these situations many times. A child may be laughing when you play with him his version of hide and seek (covering his face with a cloth and asking “Where is  Joe?” and then uncovering and saying with surprise “Oh, there he is!”), over and over again. Even after 20 times the child may still be in the same hilarious laugh as after the 1st time. He recognizes from the first movement what it is going to happen and anticipation makes it great.

In the conscious forming of classes, language plays a role, or more specifically, naming. The whole process begins with a child being interested in the chosen object. He finds this object appealing to his senses, so he interacts with it. And he usually plays with the object in all possible ways. He asks for its name. Naming is essential for learning a concept, because a name labels the class, hence it is identified with the class.

Without the name we miss our reference. The name serves therefore as a handle of a bag. It points to or indicates a group of objects or experiences which are in the bag. At the same time, naming assigns an object or experience to a given class.

The child usually collects sensory experiences and explores the object by touch, taste, sound and smell. He interacts with it in multiple ways. It allows him to create an idea of the object, before a concept is learnt. Later he sees another object of the same kind and explores it even more. Then the next example comes. And some more.

What is interesting is that a few examples are often sufficient for a child to build a good-enough, or sometimes even detailed, concept of the object. If a child is really attracted to this object, he begins to recognize objects from the same category. He is actively noticing them in the world around and happily pointing to them at any occasion. For instance, given a few examples of (playing) balls, a child is able to recognize a previously unseen ball. And you know that it is possible even if the features of a ball such as a size, color or material are totally new.

In the days or weeks to come, a child will further refine the concept of a ball. This is the time he will study (i.e. explore) more examples of balls. Hopefully, such a set includes less typical balls as well. These are important for inspecting the boundary cases. What is even more important are the negative examples, i.e. examples which do not belong to the class. Again, a special focus is put on these negative examples which resemble the object of interest in some way, but are not the object.

For instance, a child may see an orange and recognize it as a ball. If you reply that the object is not a ball but an orange (a different name, hence a different class), a child will be prompted to reformulate his concept of a ball, respectively. When he is pointed out to differences, he will learn the essential discrimination about ball-like objects which are not balls.

The effective concept learning takes place in the presence of both uncommon and negative examples. Borderline cases from both sides of the class are crucial for a good formulation of the concept.


Although the example of a ball sounds simple, the same steps take place for learning the concepts behind more complicated things such as dogs, cars, flowers, airplanes, or particular meals, as well as activities such as cooking, running or playing. What is remarkable, is the step in which a child takes the concept to an abstract level by becoming to know what is the essence of the object or concept. I believe such an abstraction is the basis for our fast intelligent recognition skill that we so much rely on in daily life.

For instance, when my toddler was exploring the world around, attracted to airplanes flying above, he only started to recognize them when he was able to name them. He learned the concept well.

Recently, he has surprised me by the following. In the garden he found two wood planks of different lengths. He put them across, kept them in this alignment in his hand above his head and started to run around the garden. While doing so, he was making humming noises and joyfully shouting that there was an airplane flying.

I understood he made an important step. He was able to bring the understanding of what an airplane was to the next level in which he saw its basic essence. He was able to emphasize a few features essential for an object to be considered as a plane: a particular shape, noise and movement in the air. This is the skill of abstraction applied to in a creative way.

You learn concepts from examples

If you observe others and yourself, and explore of how we learn, you will discover that we learn concepts or classes from examples. Moreover, in an ideal scenario, we actually follow the process described above. And what is more, we are able to learn them from a few examples only, usually three to five. Just ask yourself:

  • How many times do you need to hear your friend speaking in order to recognize her voice?
  • How many examples do you need to be to tell whether a cathedral is gothic or not?
  • How many examples do you need to recognize an impressionist painting?
  • How many coffees do you need to smell or drink in order to learn what a cappuccino is?
  • How many passionate people do you need to interact with in order to recognize a passionate one?

A few examples are often enough. Of course, it does not necessarily mean that you will make no errors when a recognition should occur. There may be difficult borderline cases, changed circumstances, previously unseen mixtures of objects or other situations which may lead us to a wrong assignment. But a few examples are sufficient to get an idea behind the concept. However, you will need many more examples especially near the border cases in order to refine the concept well for arbitrarily difficult examples.

For instance, you may need to hear your friend speaking when he is ill in order to better recognize his voice over the phone in arbitrary circumstances. You may also need many more examples in order to recognize particular sub-cases of the given classes.

Whatever the case, remember to collect a wide spectrum of examples from the class as well as from outside of the class. Otherwise, your concept would either be too narrow or too wide. What you want is a well-formulated, tight (but not too tight) concept, because it will facilitate your learning.

Well-learned concepts increase intelligence

There is no doubt about it. Remember, any concept you hold, whether it is about concrete objects in the world, scientific discoveries, your skill or experiences, it is your building block for the synergistic working of other concepts.  It has a direct influence on the quality (read: happiness, joy, fulfillment) of your life.

For example, the concept you have learned about computers links to your ability of using them effectively or not, or the concept you created about love has a huge impact on the way you create your relationships.

The more factual representation of your concept, the better it serves you to build other concepts and make intelligent choices. The better your concepts, the better your ability to plan and act accordingly. Both recognition and prediction directly rely on the goodness and accuracy of concepts you have created.

Well-learned concepts and well-learned classes are formulated based on all examples (or experiences) with the emphasis on uncommon situations or outliers.

Take your time to inspect your most important concepts about yourself and life.

Learn them anew.

Practical strategy

How do you practically implement the learning of accurate concepts? It’s simple. I will summarize it below:

  1. You learn concepts from examples.
  2. The quality and representativeness of the examples/experiences you use for concept learning is essential.
  3. If you learn a new concept, choose your examples wisely. You need examples that cover a wide range of situations and boundary cases. You will often need as little as 3-5 typical examples and a variable number of boundary examples.
  4. Be open and willing to reformulate your concept when you notice an example that is different, strange or otherwise appealing. What you want is a tight description but wide enough to accommodate what is the gist of the concept.
  5. If you have a concept formulated (e.g. about entrepreneurship, working-out, cars, kids, faith, money, Rembrandt paintings, mountaineering, buying houses etc), inspect which examples or experiences you used to create it. Remove outdated examples that no longer serve you and use more recent examples. Mentally re-crete your concept again by finding patterns, similarities and differences, between the examples you collected. Just think about it and get new insights.
  6. Do it with every new concept you learn.


The image above shows a quilt by Inge Duin. See for more details.


Learning and generalization posts:

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