Apophenia: Detecting Patterns That Don't Exist
Do you know someone who always uses the same pen in their exams because they feel it brings them luck? Do you think that going outside without an umbrella will make it rain? Have you ever felt that you’ve somehow transmitted a message to someone to call you with your thoughts? All of these are examples of apophenia. It’s a phenomenon that any of us can experience at some point in our lives. On the other hand, it can be pathological.
If you consider our examples, you’ll see that they all have one thing in common: a connection between two events that aren’t related. For example, the pen used and the grade obtained in the exam isn’t associated in any way, but the individual thinks they are.
This is the basis of apophenia. It’s extremely similar to magical thinking and is promoted by certain religious currents or spiritual movements.
Apophenia is a cognitive bias that leads an individual to see a pattern or connection between various objects or events that don’t exist. The German neurologist and psychiatrist, Klaus Conrad, first coined the term in 1958. Since then, various investigations have been conducted in this regard.
To better understand what the experience consists of, we should note it consists of two elements:
- The individual detects connections for no real reason. They don’t see patterns that are already there but imagine them. Moreover, they adopt them and take them as accurate with there being no evidence to support this.
- They give subjective meaning to the facts. Consequently, they take them as more important than they are and find hidden meanings behind their occurrence. They don’t accept that they might be simply anecdotal or random events completely unconnected to each other.
Some everyday examples
Even if you’ve never heard this term, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon on more than one occasion. To understand it better, look at the following examples. You may identify with some of them.
- You’re going to a job interview and, on your way, you notice several people smiling. You believe that this is a sign that everything will go well.
- You think that you frequently see specific hours on the clock. For example, 11:11. You view this as significant regarding something that’s worrying you in your life.
- You always wear the same scarf when your favorite soccer team is playing, because you assume that it’ll bring them luck and help them win the game.
- You think of a friend you haven’t seen for a long time. At that precise moment, they call you. You believe that you somehow transmitted the message for them to call you with your thoughts.
- You’ve broken up with your partner and continually hear their name and their favorite song everywhere. You take this as a sign that they miss you or that you should get back together.
- You’re pregnant and suddenly can’t stop seeing other pregnant women on the street. You assume that this is because there’s been a recent boom in pregnancy rates. But, in reality, the only thing that’s happened is that you now pay more attention to pregnant women.
You might also like to read The Positive and Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia
Why does apophenia occur?
As you can see, anyone can experience this phenomenon. It’s not a mental disorder, nor does it necessarily signify poor psychological health. In reality, it responds to the human need for security.
Our minds like predictability. We need to feel that we have some control over our environments. As a result, we might demonstrate apophenia. It arises to prevent feelings of uncertainty. We give meaning to something that doesn’t have it and create relationships between random events.
Although apophenia is more likely to occur in individuals who are insecure and who perceive their environment as threatening or worrying, we can all fall prey to it. In fact, according to Michael Shermer, in an article published in Scientific American, our brains are programmed to recognize patterns and find meaning. He claims it’s an evolutionary ability that contributes to our survival as a species.
In addition, Brugger (2001) suggests that apophenia is related to creativity and is used in many artistic creations.
However, when this phenomenon occurs too frequently or becomes the individual’s usual way of interpreting the world, there may be an underlying psychosis. According to an article in Psychiatry Research, this tendency to perceive independent events as significantly connected forms part of the positive symptoms of schizophrenia.
There also seems to be a biological correlation for apophenia. According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, high levels of dopamine are linked with a greater appearance of the phenomenon.
How to deal with apophenia
As we said, although apophenia is harmless in principle and can happen to anyone, it could lead to making bad decisions. Moreover, if it happens excessively, it disconnects us from reality. Therefore it’s important to try and prevent it.
First of all, you should employ critical thinking. Although this requires more effort than the mental shortcut of identifying patterns, it can save you from falling prey to superstitions and fallacies. It’s also important to avoid the consumption of certain drugs or substances that predispose to apophenia and paranormal experiences.
If apophenia occurs as a symptom of psychosis, certain drugs that regulate dopaminergic levels can help reduce the tendency to find non-existent connections and subjective meanings.
You may be interested to read Amphetamine Induced Psychosis: Symptoms and Treatment
Apophenia and pareidolia
It’s essential not to confuse apophenia with pareidolia, which is a related but different phenomenon. Pareidolia is a perceptual alteration that leads to specifying recognizable shapes in a vague or random visual stimulus. For example, finding figures of animals in the clouds or the face of a virgin or a demon in a stain on the wall.
Both experiences share the characteristic of giving meanings to objects or events that don’t have them, and both require monitoring. Otherwise, you may find yourself identifying certain patterns, causality, or symbolism in totally random events.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Brugger, P. (2001). From haunted brain to haunted science: A cognitive neuroscience view of paranormal and pseudoscientific thought. Hauntings and poltergeists: Multidisciplinary perspectives, ed. J. Houran & R. Lange, 195-213. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304335363_From_haunted_brain_to_haunted_science_A_cognitive_neuroscience_view_of_paranormal_and_pseudoscientific_thought
- Krummenacher, P., Mohr, C., Haker, H., & Brugger, P. (2010). Dopamine, paranormal belief, and the detection of meaningful stimuli. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 22(8), 1670–1681. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19642883/
- Luke, D. (2015). Drugs and psi phenomena. Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st century, 149-164.
- Rominger, C., Schulter, G., Fink, A., Weiss, E. M., & Papousek, I. (2018). Meaning in meaninglessness: the propensity to perceive meaningful patterns in coincident events and randomly arranged stimuli is linked to enhanced attention in early sensory processing. Psychiatry Research, 263, 225-232. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178116319308
- Tamminga, C. A., & Carlsson, A. (2002). Partial dopamine agonists and dopaminergic stabilizers, in the treatment of psychosis. Current Drug Targets-CNS & Neurological Disorders, 1(2), 141-147. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cdtcnsnd/2002/00000001/00000002/art00004
- Truzzi, M. (2001). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. The Journal of Parapsychology, 65(2), 161. https://www.proquest.com/docview/195034191
- Shermer, M. (2008). Patternicity: Finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Scientific American, 299(5), 48. https://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:E9NLpsgh48AJ:scholar.google.com/&hl=es&as_sdt=0,5