Cognitive Psychology and Knitting: Pattern matching and selective attention

There is a very interesting book called Things I learnt from Knitting by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee.

In her introduction/foreword she discusses the idea that Knitting is a very strong example of certain Cognitive Psychology concepts. Namely those of Attention;  Pattern recognition; Object Identification; and Time Sensations.

In Cognitive Psychology they are interested in how people choose what to focus on, the way patterns are recognised even though they may be very different in apparent appearance, and how time is perceived.

Filtering and attention relate to how we use our mental energy. How we decide on what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore, what we will store in our neuron and pathways and what we will discard or not pay sufficient attention to for it to register in our brain.

Thinking about pattern recognition, the theory states that pattern recognition describes a cognitive process that matches information from a stimulus with information retrieved from memory.

So consider the letter a. As a child we are taught how to read and write, but each book we read uses a different font or paper size and thus font size and so on, and yet after a while we recognise all the letter ‘A’s we come across. I realised this fact just recently as I was being read to by my grand-daughter. we had written each of us, our own books on small folded pieces of paper – concertina books –  and I had written in cursive script – clearly I thought but… It was a different cursive from the one she was used to and thus some letters she had difficulty in recognising eg I use the continental way of writing a cursive ‘z’ and my ‘s’  was different and so on. Yet once explained she knew them and recognised the letters when they came up again. Reading is her joy at the moment but she is still learning how the combinations of letters make words and how they can be pronounced differently in different contexts eg ‘bow’.  English is very tricksy!

In a crowded train carriage my husband dons his noise cancelling headphones. I get out my reading and knitting. Which of us hears less of the noise made by the loud chatterers? Which of us knows where we are in terms of stations? Not me, that’s for sure. I am immersed in what I am doing and all the other sensory information within the train carriage passes me by. I am not paying attention to it. I am focussed on my tasks.

Sensory information comes in four formats:  visual; auditory; tactile; and olfactory. It is more than just simple registering of sensory information… it involves some sort of interpretation of that information. We can ignore that part of the sensory information that surrounds us if we are focussed on our tasks. We filter and pay attention only to that which interest us.

Broadbent (1958) argued that information from all of the stimuli presented at any given time enters a sensory buffer.  One of the inputs is then selected on the basis of its physical characteristics for further processing by being allowed to pass through a filter.  Because we have only a limited capacity to process information, this filter is designed to prevent the information-processing system from becoming overloaded.  The inputs not initially selected by the filter remain briefly in the sensory buffer, and if they are not processed they decay rapidly. We therefore lose them and do not remember them.

Alternatively Treisman’s (1964) model retains this early filter (Broadbent’s) which works on physical features of the message only. The crucial difference is that Treisman’s filter ATTENUATES rather than eliminates the unattended material.  Attenuation is like turning down the volume so that if you have 4 sources of sound in one room (TV, radio, people talking, baby crying) you can turn down or attenuate 3 in order to attend to the fourth.

It is my experience that we can do both – we can choose which model to follow – or at least I can. Sometimes I am completely immersed and nothing will come in from the external world, sometimes I am not so focussed – I am not paying enough attention because what I am doing does not require me to – perhaps it is very familiar – eg knitting plain and purl stitches – I can do this without looking at the needles and the wool as I very familiar with the feel and pattern my hands need to make to complete the physical task.

Yet when we knit we can focus on our counting, our pattern changes and the rows we need before we change colour etc to such an extent that the external world fades away and the world is concentrated in the movement of our hands.

Many different patterns can all be recognised as examples of the same concept. We use pattern recognition all the time we understand a stitch or the regularity of a decrease on a sleeve so that we do them automatically. We know when something has gone wrong – when what we are knitting does not look right.

We also use object recognition to know what a stitch or a pattern looks like on different items – a hat Vs a coat or a scarf, and in different colours; and when we know and understand that one sleeve is different from the other in the sweater we are knitting.

cable patternfairisle

What the author claims is that by virtue of knitting we change the way our brains work in terms of those cognitive functions. We train our brains to work in different ways from those people who do not knit.



2 thoughts on “Cognitive Psychology and Knitting: Pattern matching and selective attention

  1. Oh, the Places We See

    Love this! And pattern recognition is so good for knitting — once I get the hang of a pattern, I’m almost on automatic pilot. Pattern recognition also helps when I mess up — like dropping a stitch. I can “see” the mistake almost immediately. Thanks for making me think tonight!



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