Apophenia

Apophenia

I wrote about pareidolia recently and apophenia is closely related – but instead of seeing faces in objects apophenia is the natural tendency for people to see connections and patterns in random or unrelated events.

In psychiatry apophenia describes the personal significance that people ascribe to coincidence or random events when they are experiencing a delusion.  It is also linked to high levels of dopamine in the brain, and is associated both with high levels of creativity and with a tendency to believe in conspiracies and the paranormal.  Outside of psychiatry it more usually describes how people are able to find connections with or between external events.  Some of this can be seen in people’s belief in cause and effect, as demonstrated by pieces of lucky clothing that people associate with success.  It can also be seen in the way that people will report high levels of accuracy in cold readings by alleged psychics or astrologers, partly through bias and partly through making personal connections with statements or questions.

A sad example of apophenia from history concerns the late Episcopalian Bishop James A. Pike.  Soon after his son Jim committed suicide in 1966 Pike started to see meaningful messages in everyday objects.  Whether it was a stopped clock, the angle formed by an open safety pin, or even the shape of two postcards that had blown to the floor, Pike found himself constantly receiving messages that referred to the time of his son’s death.

One of the explanations for this tendency to see patterns is based in our relative innumeracy.  Given that the current population of the earth is over seven billion people, and that the potential coincidences is millions of times that, then it’s not surprising that everyday some people will experience coincidences.  Known as the law of truly large numbers it explains why coincidences are to be expected, and the scale of the numbers makes it difficult for people to really relate to.

One of the explanations for this tendency to see patterns is based in our relative innumeracy.  Given that the current population of the earth is over seven billion people, and that the potential coincidences is millions of times that, then it’s not surprising that everyday some people will experience coincidences.  Known as the law of truly large numbers it explains why coincidences are to be expected, and the scale of the numbers makes it difficult for people to really relate to.

Another explanation for apophenia is based on evolution.  Early humans that were more likely to be alerted to potential danger, even if the alert was false or mistaken, were more likely to survive.  Natural selection therefore favoured those who saw danger even when danger was not there, rewarding the ability to see cause and effect, or to hear a predator, when there was no real basis.

This evolutionary driven propensity to apophenia can be seen in animals, and most famously in pigeons.  The behaviourist B. F. Skinner took pigeons and placed them in boxes where food was released entirely at random.  What he saw was that the pigeons would develop complex behaviour in response to this, repeating the actions that had accompanied the appearance of the food.  By then repeating this behaviour until more food appeared they reinforced both their learning and their behaviour.

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