Thank you, evolution, for making me good at Super Hexagon

A paean to pattern recognition and twitch gaming.

Our inherent ability for pattern recognition gets a bad rap these days. It makes us see faces where there are none, think we've cracked the secret to winning the lottery, and lose at games of poker. When it helps us, it's usually perceived as obvious. "Well of course that 'danger: meltdown imminent' warning light stands out; it's the only one that's turned on!"

The subtler moments when pattern recognition helps are rare these days. We don't frequently worry anymore that a patch of long grass rustling in a different way to the rest of the savannah might be hiding a lion. And, well, I don't drive. So that benefit goes out the window.

But, joy! Finally a use for my innate ability to unconsciously recognise repetition and adjust my expectations accordingly: it makes Super Hexagon really fun.

Super Hexagon is a minimalist game for iOS, Android and PC/Mac which involves moving a small triangle around a hexagon, avoiding the beams of light coming towards it. It is, as with so many of the best mobile games, as simple as it is addictive. It is also nearly impossible.

High scores are measured in seconds. My highest on the most difficult level I've unlocked — the fifth of six — is just over seven seconds. Watch a video of the game, which cycles from the easiest to hardest level and, if you've never played it before, everything will appear to move faster than anyone could possibly respond to:

But here's the thing: the game is based on patterns. Each playthrough is different — there's no rote memorisation of waves of motion, like there are in many "twitch" games — but gradually you will learn that certain effects are linked. You will learn this subconsciously, because the game is far too fast-paced for your conscious brain to have much to do with anything, and the result will be time slowing down. What seemed impossibly fast when you first saw it appears to move at a sluggish pace, and you'll find yourself screaming at the tiny triangle — which once moved with so twitchy a response that you would overshoot targets — to get a move on.

It's my own very mild superpower. I might not save me from being eaten alive, but it nudges my high score up by a couple of seconds.

Deep in the savannah, a hexagon stalks its prey. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser