Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

7. Patterns

Recognizing the relationship between systems and patterns


Pattern – a periodic repetition of structures or behaviors; a repetition of forms and/or actions.

Order - a special arrangement in which parts of a whole are in some regular relationship or repeatable pattern as, for example, in a crystal.

Background: Patterns and life

The recognition of patterns seems to be central to human life. The adaptive value of pattern recognition is so great that it has become a pleasurable activity in its own right. To see a pattern emerging from the seemingly chaotic makes the perceiver smile.

For early human beings, pattern recognition was adaptive because it reduced the uncertainties and danger of the world. It is of obvious importance, for example, to be able to distinguish between the pattern projected by the body of a tiger from that of forest leaves. Recognizing behavioral patterns could alert individuals to expected changes that then could be anticipated. When the herd animals began to behave in a certain way, they were preparing to move on, and it was time to pack up and move to stay with them. Understanding weather patterns was, and still is, important to survival. When to plant and when to carry an umbrella can be important decisions.

Patterns reveal the regularities of nature. Discovering those regularities is the business of science. The “eureka moment” is still the goal of all scientists. In the moment when a sequence of seemingly disjointed events is identified as a general pattern of behavior that a discovery is made. Behavioral pattern recognition permits prediction and then nature comes to be perceived as a place of order and law, which we can hope to understand and manipulate to our advantage.

The categorization of patterns is an important part of infant learning. Two circles above a vertical line which is above a horizontal line is the pattern of a human face. The subtle differences of these features enables an infant to distinguish its mother’s face from others. A child will be disturbed and may even be frightened if an image of eyes, nose and mouth is presented in some mixed up way.

Patterns are so much a part of human life that there seems to be a human impulse to create or find them. Music and art are all about pattern formation and discernment. All living systems develop ways to recognize patterns and pattern change and take action on the basis of such recognition. When a paramecium bumps into and obstruction it backs up. With another bump the paramecium backs up again and perhaps there is a third bump before it backs up and changes direction. The change in direction might be called the recognition that there is a periodic repetition of a behavior, a pattern, that is nonproductive for paramecium health.


Every law of nature implies that there are predictable and repeatable occurrences of phenomena. The pattern of activity of unsupported objects in a gravitational field is that they invariably move toward the source of gravitational attraction. Any occurrence of order in nature is now taken as indication of the existence of an underlying law. The patterns of self-organization so evident about us are therefore thought to be expressions of unknown laws whose discovery is the goal of system theorists.

Patterns and systems

There are two kinds of patterns; static and dynamic. One is formed by the regular position of objects, while the other is formed by repeated actions. This is the distinction between structure and behavior. In either case, pattern formation is the signature of a system in operation. By definition, a system involves a dynamic relationship among its parts. A system functions as a whole and produces the product or behavior that is consistent with its properties and the relationships of its parts. It does not behave randomly. Its repetitive and, with sufficient understanding, predictable behavior lends the consistency which we recognize as a pattern. The rotation of the Earth system produces the pattern of our nights and days.