“Unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. — Klaus Conrad
In clearer words, Seeing connection and meaning in data because we want it to be there, not because it really is.
3 aspects of Apophenia
- Confirmation bias – From a background of randomly distributed items; associating items that have no connection except that they fit the story you are already telling yourself.
- Rejection bias – Ignoring or denying information that DOESN’T fit the story you are telling yourself.
- Pareidolia – (less important, but related) A sensory stimulus which is interpreted by the mind as something else. For example being in the shower and the sound of the running water is interpreted as possibly your phone ringing. Or the faces seen in teapots, trucks and clouds. Or Jesus on a piece of toast.
The classic example is the gambler, excitedly seeing meaningful patterns in random information. I recently had a painful encounter with this in myself, (in a social situation) and I’m a bit shocked at how powerful it can be. This is like “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Except that all the fooling and all the shaming is me. It’s all me. Damn it, brain.
You could just call it cherry-picking but that sounds like an occasional, mild sort of problem one might easily correct. I’d describe it as a kind of spectrum disorder because it grows directly out of essential brain functions. About the most basic need for any organism is to recognize meaningful information and patterns. A little discrepancy in the shadows of a bush might mean a tiger. A twinkle of a certain color off in the distance could be fruit. If you can be scared by a sudden unexpected sound or movement, you are the descendent of people who made good use of that same function a long time ago. More subtly, there are patterns to be recognized in faces and voices and words: And in books and television and the internet. This function is a guardian and a navigator for us.
The fact is, we all have a low level case of apophenia if we have any kind of subjective outlook on life. To even have a perspective, we highlight certain data points in the world around us as more meaningful than others. Unless you are going to argue that you are never wrong, then there is a least glaze of apophenia coloring that picture. Perhaps it becomes like any well established thought pathway, a cleared road that is easier to travel than hacking through the bush all around. If we all have a bit of it, then we can consider it part of our homeostasis. We all need a coherent map of the world of meanings because we all need to make some basic assumptions to get anything done. If it means we gloss of a few discrepant facts there’s usually no serious price to pay.
When it becomes a problem is when it becomes inflamed and exaggerated. Not so much because the person simply has bad information, it’s because that bad information grows disproportionately important and defended. It almost behaves like an allergic response; any truth outside the story is treated as antigen. It is an inflammation of belief. It becomes a prime motivator, a terrible advisor, and somehow, part of our self definition. Apophenia is the mechanism and foundation of conspiracy politics. Of course it’s there in the gambler but it’s worse in these cases:
- Stalkers: Celebrity or otherwise. A false story of romance gets woven into an obsession and the focal person must be forced to recognize it.
- Religious Extremists: The religious map of reality becomes more real than the daily world. In the worst cases the world must be forced to recognize it.
- Conspiracy theorists: A weird idea becomes a raison d’etre.
- Racists: “The Jews”, “The blacks” blah, blah, blah.
- Ultra-Nationalists:It starts with culture appreciation day and ends with ethnic cleansing.
One thing I notice is how isolating they all are. In some cases a natural group of “new best friends” comes with the obsession. Unfortunately they only reinforce the seeming importance. As the levels of obsession rise, barriers of acceptable behavior are knocked aside. In the worst case scenario there is a literally terminal stage when violence and self destruction occur. These are people it is hard to feel compassion for, because they all display unpleasantness or worse but my gut tells me that way back when the obsession is just a tiny glimmer, coming into being, that hopelessness and loneliness or a desperate need for meaning are the spark that starts the fire. That the new obsession arrives feeling like a lifeboat, like escape, like a safe place. Much like serious depression, it cuts the person off from the world and rejects opposing views. For some people with serious apophenia the story must look like the revealed answer after a long search. All these people are desperately filling a void: Sadly, with a poison that they believe to be an antidote.