“Look! A four-leaf clover!”
Ever had a friend who seems to have a magical knack for spotting four-leaf clovers? Wherever you go, that person is likely to suddenly bend, pinch off the evidence, and proudly hold it up.
“How do you do that?” you might exclaim.
Easy. Because finding four-leaf clovers isn’t a matter of luck at all.
It’s a matter of training your brain.
Every waking minute, our incredible brains are engaging in the task they’re designed for: Pattern recognition, the putting together of all sorts of clues—sight, sound, smell, surroundings—to come up with a result.
We do it all the time, without consciously thinking about it. Pattern recognition is how we recognize friends in a crowd, identify a favorite song from the first notes, find our car in a parking lot, spot our lost eyeglasses hiding under the newspaper, and countless other instances every waking hour.
Sometimes, though, we have to teach our brains what pattern we’re looking for.
First time out hunting for delectable morel mushrooms? It may take an hour, or all day, to find the first one.
Finding the second morel is easier—oh wait, that’s a pinecone, not a morel.
The next, even easier. Because once all the clues that say “Morel!” are gathered by our brain, along with all the trial-and-error “that’s not a morel” clues, finding morels becomes a cinch.
Same with four-leaf clovers.
“You’re so lucky! I’ve never found a four-leaf clover!”
You just haven’t looked hard enough.
The more often you look for a four-leaf clover, the better you’ll get. They’re not rare. And being wrong actually increases the chances of success. Is that a four-leaf? No, it’s two overlapping three-leaf clovers. Our incredible brains instantly, and unconsciously, file away additional fine points of the “four-leaf clover pattern” so we aren’t fooled next time.
You can start by consciously looking for a big visual clue that makes a four-leaf clover stand out from the pack—the whitish lines on each individual leaflet form a square on a four-leaf, instead of the usual triangle on three-leaf clovers.
Or you can simply take a minute to scan every clump of cover you come across, and let your subconscious brain do the work.
Remember the Sesame Street jingle, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is just not the same”? Your brain will recognize the difference. And the more often you look at clumps of clover, the faster you’ll get at spotting an oddball four-leaf.
Aren’t we lucky! You bet—but the “luck” is not in the four-leaf clover. It’s in having such an amazing brain.
Lucky at Home
Don’t expect that clump with four-leaf clovers to keep putting out “lucky clovers” if you carefully dig it out and carry it home. Transplanted to your own garden (voice of experience), it usually reverts to plain old three-leaf clovers.
That’s because the four-leaf trait, while partly genetic, is also “strongly influenced by the environment,” according to modern research.
People have been noticing four-leaf clovers for centuries. They were “gathered at night-time during the full moon by sorceresses,” noted Maxwell Masters in Vegetable Teratology, An Account of the Principal Deviations from the Usual Construction of Plants (Hardwicke Publishers, London, 1889). As for what purpose the sorceresses had in mind for their four-leaf finds, he offered no explanation.