Patterns, Metapatterns, and Pattern Thinking

We are born with the abilities to see and make sense of patterns. We learn language; recognize people, animals, and objects; and make sense of all kinds of things in our environments through the processes of pattern thinking. Yet, this very powerful propensity is generally ignored throughout schooling. Pattern thinking, like systems thinking, can be used to understand the complexities of our world, including various types of relationships between people, “things,” ideas, and processes. Patterns are not necessarily simple geometric forms. They can be patterns of behavior, patterns of communication, patterns of processes or function. They can be visible or invisible. We not only can relate to patterns as ways of understanding phenomena, but also can use patterns as design tools, as ways to communicate, as tools for research, and as the foci for conceptual learning.


This photo of a sea star is an interesting example of how we can use metapatterns to analyze natural objects. Gregory Bateson coined the term "metapatterns" in his 1979 book, Mind and Nature, but never delineated any specific metapatterns. However, in 1995, Tyler Volk took Bateson's idea and describe 11 metapatterns in his book, Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind. Using Volk's patterns and a few I've added, we can examine this sea star….

  • The five arms come together into a center that acts as an central organizer for the physical arms, for the hydraulic system of tube feet, for the sensory system, and for its approach to eating where the tube feet and arms pull apart a bivalve so that it can insert its stomach around the now open clam or mussel, digest it, then pull its stomach back. It's pretty weird, but effective.
  • The tubes of the hydraulic system and tube feet provide a system for moving liquid through the tubes and thereby adjusting the pressure in various locations. The tube feet act like tiny suction cups. So, sea stars can climb smooth surfaces and can exert tremendous forces on such things as clams and mussels, which they can open.
  • The tube feet and arms move in cycles or waves as they move across surfaces. These movements are quite coordinated and not at all random.
  • There are many more metapatterns involved, but let's just take these three. These three metapatterns of centers, tubes, and cycles, are all functional patterns. They serve a function that is vital to the survival of the sea star. While the functions of moving, sensing, and eating are common to animals, sea stars have come up with unique ways of accomplishing these tasks. So, while these functions are uniquely accomplished, they also share common qualities. Humans use tubes for transporting materials including oxygen and food and for regulating blood pressure. We also use tubes (muscle fibers) for movement, but not hydraulic tubes for movement. We may consider our head as a center, in which case it serves to coordinate sensory and motor functions and as a place for taking in food (eating), much in the same way as the center of a sea star. We also move in cycles. Our arms and legs move in wave-like motion, but more rapidly than a sea star.
  • What other similarities to sea stars can you find in other organisms, in social or cultural situations, or in technology?

Tyler Volk's Metapatterns:

  • Spheres
  • Sheets
  • Tubes
  • Borders — Pores
  • Layers: Holarchies, Hierarchies, Holons, Clonons
  • Binaries
  • Centers
  • Calendars — Time
  • Arrows
  • Breaks
  • Cycles

Some other Metapatterns to consider:

  • Gradients
  • Clusters
  • Voids, Space
  • Rigidity — Flexibility
  • Emergence
  • Webs, Networks
  • Triggers

For more information, SEE a "Metapatterns Overview" at Metapatterns: The Pattern Underground.

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©2015 Jeffrey W. Bloom

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