“The unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. — Klaus Conrad

More simply, Apophenia is seeing connections and meaning in data because we want it to be there, not because it really is.

3 Types of Apophenia:

  1. 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.
  2. Rejection bias – Ignoring or denying information that DOESN’T fit the story you are telling yourself.
  3. Pareidolia – (less impactful, but related) A sensory stimulus that is interpreted by the mind as something else. For example, being in the shower and in the sound of the running water, you keep thinking you hear your phone ringing. It is also, the faces we see in teapots, trucks, and clouds. It is seeing Jesus on a piece of toast, or a happy dog face in random shadows and light.

The classic example given is a gambler, excitedly seeing meaningful patterns in random information and sensing a coming streak of good luck. I recently had a painful encounter with this in myself, in a social situation where I consistently misunderstood social signals and lost a friend. It’s shocking how compelling and believable a false impression can be. Then, the dawning realization of having been completely wrong and completely certain is mortifying but also frightening: You’ve been out of touch with reality, and you were not in a relationship with another person, just with yourself and your dream. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” but in this case, all the fooling and all the shaming is on you. Damn it, brain.

The most basic survival need for any organism is to recognize meaningful information and patterns around it. A little anomaly in the shadows of a bush might mean a tiger. A twinkle of a certain color in the distance could be fruit. If a sudden unexpected sound or movement puts you on alert it means your copy of this software is up and running. The neurology of patterns and meanings is essential from raw survival to subtle nuances of communication. There are patterns to be recognized in faces, voices, and body language: There are patterns in the weather and in the nightly news. This function is our guardian and navigator in literally everything we do. It is the foundation of our relationship with Reality. Apophenia is the name given to a group of universal and necessary pattern recognizing behaviors at the point that we embellish and become partisan.

There is a healthy version of Apophenia and a toxic version. Healthy Apophenia is invisible because it creates no (serious) conflict. Toxic Apophenia can be viewed as a spectrum disorder because it emerges directly out of the same essential brain functions but as beliefs that constantly cause conflict with the outside world.

I’ll use the example of Autism as a spectrum disorder to make a similar case for Apophenia.

All of us fit somewhere on the Autism spectrum. We have our personal “settings” for all the well-known issues of ASD people such as sound sensitivity, dislike of eye contact, social deficits, etc. We might be socially warm, making intimate eye contact and not at all bothered by noise but we are on the same spectrum or there would be no contrasting perception describing Autistic behavior. What makes a person “Autistic” is the degree to which their personal settings cause friction with the “normal” world. We stop calling people Autistic when the friction is mild enough that a diagnosis isn’t necessary. This is simply where we stop measuring the spectrum, not where the spectrum stops.

Apophenia is recognizable friction between OUR reality and REALITY itself. It is a meaning disorder.

We all have a case of high-functioning apophenia if we have any kind of subjective outlook on life. Subjectivity and “reality favoritism” are unavoidable because to have any point of view, we highlight certain data points in the world as more meaningful than others, we prefer these data points. They support the narrative. Of course, there is no absolute objective reality that we could all be perfectly in touch with. A properly functioning person is loaded with biases and subjectivity. If a bit of Apophenia is universal we can consider it part of our homeostasis. It’s part of how we have a fix on our personal life and beliefs. We all need to make some basic assumptions to get anything done. If it means we gloss over a few discrepant facts there’s usually no serious price to pay. A bit of friction is just human background noise.

It is a more serious case of Apophenia when beliefs become obsessive. Not because the person simply has bad information, it’s because that bad information grows disproportionately important, inflexible, and unquestionable. Mistakes aren’t corrected, they are defended. Apophenia almost behaves like an allergic response; eventually, any truth outside the story is treated as antigen. It is an inflammation of belief. That belief becomes our prime motivator, a terrible advisor, and somehow, an essential part of our self-definition. It shows up as an opportunistic infection alongside addiction and co-dependency. It is dogmatic and generates black and white stories. Often it is a willful rejection of any relationship to others becoming a protective wall around megalomania. Apophenia is the mechanism and the very foundation of conspiracy politics. Viral memes and vulnerable people are the breeding ground.

Examples of Hot Zone Apophenia:

  • Stalkers: Celebrity or otherwise. A false story of romance is woven into an obsession and the focal person must be forced to recognize it.
  • Religious Extremists: A 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. A monomania.
  • Racists: Everything becomes about “The Jews”, or “The blacks” ad-nauseum.
  • Ultra-Nationalists: It starts with culture appreciation day and ends with ethnic cleansing.

Notice how isolated they all are. In some cases, a natural group of “new best friends” comes with the obsession. Unfortunately, a likeminded community only reinforces the seeming importance and truth. All backs are turned against the outside world and all its damned lies. 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, loneliness and a desperate need for meaning are the sparks that start the fire. The new obsession arrives feeling like a lifeboat, like a rescue, like an escape to a safe place. Much like serious depression, it cuts the person off from the world and rejects opposing views. For many with serious Apophenia, the story leading to their downfall must feel like an answered prayer and a reason for living.

All these people are desperately filling a painful void with a poison that they have mistaken for an antidote. In apophenia, you don’t hold the belief, the belief holds you.