What are the best pattern interrupts out there?
May 8, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

What are the best and most powerful pattern interrupts you know of?

I don't know who first coined the term "pattern interrupt" but it essentially means the changing of focus or physiology to stop a certain thought, argument or situation from continuing. Here are a few examples:

1. In The Incredibles, the whole family is fighting with each other when someone knocks at the door. They immediately stop the fight and forget what they were arguing about.

2. A mental patient kept claiming he was Jesus until one psychiatrist came back with a cross and nails and suggested it was time for the crucifixion.

3. If you feel you're about to cry, look upwards and jump up and down and this will shift you away from crying.

So, there are lots of types of things that pattern interrupts could be used to stop or change (anger, fear, silliness, mourning, obsession, rising tension, compulsion, and probably hundreds of others I'm not even thinking of). I tried googling for a list but couldn't find one.

If people could write the best ones they know of here that would be awesome.

As an aside, maybe someone wrote a book with a list of them or case studies inside?
posted by fantasticninety to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Well, there's always the stereotypical record scratch in shows if music is playing when something starts to happen. Everyone in the room stops dancing and turns to face the scene.
posted by phunniemee at 9:35 AM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

The handshake interrupt (try googling it). Never used it myself, but Derren Brown seems to use it a lot to hypnotise people very quickly.
posted by iotic at 9:39 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know that whenever anyone, anywhere drops tray of food in a cafeteria (high school, college, airport, hospital, etc.) everyone alllllways stops whatever they were doing and stares at them. Sometimes this stare is accompanied by a crowd-wide OOOOHHHHHHHH as in the case of my high school, or everyone starts clapping and shouting congrats. I know multiple times that after such tray is dropped, its difficult to think about whatever we were talking about before.

Unsure if that's what you are looking for, but its what comes to my mind.
posted by fuzzysoft at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2011

A girl told me about this in summer camp when I was 12 and I use it to this day even though it is really weird.

When you are embarrassed, go somewhere private and cover your face with your hair. When you're ready, shake your head side to side to shake the hair off your face. You will be less embarrassed and ready to go back to what you were doing. You need long hair for this.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:47 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you feel a sneeze coming on and for whatever reason you don't want to sneeze at that time, you can press on the area between your top lip and nose and it will stop it. Not sure if it works every time, but it seems to for me!
posted by coupdefoudre at 9:56 AM on May 8, 2011

My high school had an entire basement full of pool tables (it is still, I believe the largest pool hall in the state) and repairs were paid for by charging a nickel every time a ball left a table. If you didn't offer up a nickel to the proctor willingly and he had to hound you for the money, it was a dime. The habit of all of us miscreants was to yell "NICKEL!" any time we heard the sound of a pool ball hitting the concrete floor. It was like you say "pattern interrupt" - the whole basement would erupt with the "NICKEL!" call.

I still do this - it's utterly reflexive. Not just in pool halls - any time I hear a noise similar to the pool-ball-on-concrete "thok", it's all I can do to keep from yelling out "NICKEL!!!"
posted by notsnot at 9:59 AM on May 8, 2011

This sounds like the early neuro linguistic programming stuff. The phrase "pattern interrupt" or something very like it occurs in Bandler & Grinder's books from the 1970s. B&G use an example very like the mental patient who thought he was Jesus. Derren Brown uses some of the same techniques, IIRC. And Bandler certainly used a technique involving a handshake.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:01 AM on May 8, 2011

My mom taught me this (Happy Mother's Day, Mom!): when someone who is usually nice asks you a too personal question, ask them "why do you ask?" You don't seem rude but allows them to think about their own rudeness.
posted by acheekymonkey at 10:06 AM on May 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

There's the wear-a-rubber-band-around-your-wrist-and-snap-it aka Thought Stopping technique in behavioral psychology. Used by folks suffering from OCD, additions, panic attacks, anxiety, etc. etc.
posted by likeso at 10:23 AM on May 8, 2011

My favorite one is "trying not to think of elephants." It works when I need to sneeze and don't want to. Would probably stop other impulses too.

I think the crucifixion one you described above is dangerous (and probably some kind of urban myth). I don't think that delusions work that way or are so easy to dispense with.

I work with a population that is sometimes violent, and once a co-worker interrupted an assault by asking if the aggressor wanted a banana. It was so random that it worked.

In my work, I call this a "stimulus change." Sometimes (not all the time), introducing a new stimulus will break a pattern, behavior, or impulse.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:34 AM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

In cybernetics they call this a "perturbation". When a system capable of self regulation is stuck in a locked loop of behavior, a perturbation is not an input that sets its state, but a temporary loss of stability, which the system responds to by regulating and reaching a new stability, that will likely not be part of that previous loop. This being cybernetics, the system can be a thermostat, an anti-aircraft weapon, a biological system, or a mind, the dynamics are similar.
posted by idiopath at 10:44 AM on May 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was told a long time ago that, when under stress and making a suboptimal response, to make an "O" with your thumb and forefinger, holding them verse tensely, as close together as you can without quite letting them touch and closing the O. Allegedly the muscle tension and not-touchingness distracts the brain from whatever it's doing. I have no idea whether that's true or not, but it does head off sniffly stress tears pretty well, and sometimes calms my inclination to respond LOUDLY. Works pretty well when public speaking and overcome with emotion, etc.

Doesn't seem to work for really strong emotions like fury and despair, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:49 AM on May 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

To more directly address the question, in the realm of human mind or attention, the best perturbations typically shift domains.

Jokes work best when they quickly shift domains (often from the realm of narrative to a second unexpected narrative, or in the case of puns or abstract humor to a meta-level feature of that narrative).

Certain subjects, like sex or violence, are well known for their ability to instantly shift the domains of our perception/behavior.

More subtly, as a general example of the sex/violence shift, it is easy to shift in domain from sharing social dynamics or information to a more pressing and immediate domain, especially if there is any hint of visceral consequences. The doorbell or dropping of a tray are examples of this.
posted by idiopath at 10:50 AM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I work in an elementary school. In assembly or classroom, to get the attention of everyone in the room we either: turn out the lights; the principal stands at the front and raises one hand (everyone notices and joins in gradually until there's silence - usually within a minute); or we do a pattern of clapping that has a response (think "shave and a haircut"). In a noisy environment, like at recess, I sing out "If you hear me clap once." (a good portion clap once) "If you hear clap twice!" (nearly everyone does this, but it gets the attention of the last few noisy ones) and then "Clap three times and (direction - sit down, line up, listen to the speaker...); but since they grew used to the "clap three times" I often now say "clap like this..." and insert either something like "We Will Rock You" or the "Rock and Rock and Roll Radio, Let's Go" beat.
posted by peagood at 10:54 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use something similar to peagood's method when I need to get the attention of a group of kids. If you just say "okay listen to me everyone" it doesn't always get them to stop what they are doing. However if you ask them to all do something (usually I say "if you can hear me put your finger on your nose") it gets them all to refocus.
posted by radioamy at 11:23 AM on May 8, 2011

Splashing water on your face interrupts an anxiety attack because of the mammalian diving reflex.
posted by desjardins at 12:05 PM on May 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Once at a corporate conference, hundreds of people were milling around and talking loudly in the various meeting rooms and hotel corridors. The conference organizer needed to make an announcement (e.g., it's time to go to the sessions) over the hotel loud-speakers.

He started speaking rapidly in Latin! I don't know what he said. But it took all of 5 seconds for everyone to shut up, at which point he reverted to English.
posted by Kevin S at 12:19 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

idiopath, feel free to elaborate further if you have the time.

Thanks for the responses from everyone.
posted by fantasticninety at 4:35 PM on May 8, 2011

Rather than elaborating, I am probably better off suggesting some reading on the subject:
Steps To An Ecology Of Mind by Gregory Bateson.
Various readings from Gordon Pask. (I am seriously considering making an FPP from that page of readings).
Readings from Larry Richards (similar subject matter to the Pask readings, more accessible - I know the guy so I couldn't make an fpp of those).
The defining text of the field: Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by Norbert Wiener.
posted by idiopath at 5:36 PM on May 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've gotten the attention of a large, loud audience by using the zagareet. This had the effect of pattern interrupt as well.
posted by Prairie at 7:37 PM on May 8, 2011

In the Hitchhiker's Guide series, Arthur Dent's experience with suddenly finding himself able to fly leads him to fear that he would fall from the sky if he thought about it too much. He focuses his mind on considering tulips, the shape of the way the petals attach to the stem, etc. instead and is able to float on. I often think of that when I am having unhelpful patterns of thought or trying to relax.

"He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots" is also a great pattern interrupt, from (fittingly) William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Cayce Pollard uses it as a calming mantra.
posted by gerls at 8:38 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is evidence that body position plays a role in how our brains interact to different stimuli. This could mean that changing your body position - sitting when you were standing, lying down if you were sitting, etc, could act as a pattern-interruptor.
posted by nondescript at 12:25 AM on May 9, 2011

The sound of glass breakign usually stops a room.

Some people use a metal can with gravel or coins or dried beans inside which, when shaken, will inerrupt a dog's barking.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:45 AM on May 9, 2011

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