Apropos of Nothing

Humans are masters of pattern recognition, even when none is present – but then, does that really matter?

Well be with you, my carbon-based compadres! Today I appear before you bearing a mystery. An enigma if you will, a cognitive conundrum that has so far evaded my every attempt at comprehension. I will share this riddle in the hopes that doing so may shed light on something that is – quite literally as you will see – sheathed in darkness.

Every morning for the past three weeks I have woken from the deepest sleep at precisely 4:44 AM.

Ok, I grant you this may not be a puzzle worthy of the Sphinx, nor would it likely tax the grey cells of the great detectives of history, such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew. However, these nocturnal interruptions in the blessed suspension of my consciousness represent a riddle that weighs heavily on my mind. Like Lewis Carroll’s famous brainteaser in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the solution is unknown. This is in spite of many attempts to solve it, for example: “The notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes,” as puzzle enthusiast Sam Lloyd has… um… noted.

What’s so important about 4:44 AM? Am I telling myself something? Is it a glitch in the Matrix? Is it a desperate message from my future self, warning me of an impending catastrophe where alien invaders threaten the human race with subjugation, death and reality shows like “Celebrity Iron Talent Survivor Chef Island?” And what of the numbers themselves? Is 4:44 exigent, or is it just the numeral 4 that has significance? Perhaps the repetition itself has a symbolism of which I’m not yet cognizant. The mind boggles at the implications. The fate of the human race could rest on my ability to discern the meaning of this obscure twilight communiqué!

Or… maybe not.

The human critter is, by its very nature, hardwired for pattern recognition. A casual examination of our seemingly random world reveals a myriad collection of patterns, many of them vital to our daily lives. Getting to work on time is the result of recognizing patterns in your daily commute and responding to changes in schedule and traffic. Diagnosing an illness is often the result of recognizing patterns in human behaviour. Advancements in computer technology have resulted in machines that can mimic the pattern-recognition abilities of human beings, allowing for innovations like self-driving cars.

While near-human level pattern recognition in machines certainly sounds impressive, what makes homo sapiens truly unique is our ability to assign significance to the patterns we encounter in the the world. Also the invention of the jelly donut.

From the interpretation of subtle facial expressions to messages from an alien overlord-enslaved future self, we have the uncanny ability to discover otherwise hidden meanings… whether they exist or not.

Any conversation about the assignment of meanings to events will invariably make its way back to subjects such as Astrology. Those who vociferously venerate the religion of science (another tale for another time dear reader) love to wag the finger of derision at folks who would assign meaning to the positions of the stars. (Virgo rising in the house of wealth, third from the left, not counting the dentist’s office, that sort of thing.) This kind of criticism may or may not be correct (if juvenile in its form), but the point I’m trying to make is that we are extremely adept, not only at assigning meaning, but also at creating patterns where none exist.

It is here that art is born.

Take my early morning conundrum as an exemplar. Is there a meaning to my pattern of waking at precisely 4:44 AM? Or is it simply a habit I’ve developed at random, one that by chance coincides with a repetition of the number 4 on the clock? The answer is open to interpretation, but it’s interesting how the mind seems determined to assign some meaning to the event.

Human-shaped humans are perplexing creatures and it’s entirely possible that we may never fully understand the complexities of beings capable of activities as diverse and unfathomable as writing poetry, splitting the atom and believing selfie sticks are a good idea. I think this is largely a good thing – the impenetrable mysteries of the human mind that is, not the selfie sticks. A universe with no mysteries left to solve would indeed be a dull place to live.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to decode this desperate message from the future. I for one do not welcome our alien overlords, especially when they threaten us with more reality TV. Some fates are worse than death.

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