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Apophenia: Holistic Insight or Deluded Misunderstanding

FOREWORD:

Choose one:

  1. there is no meaning outside of the human perception of meaning;
  2. everything has implicit meaning and the world speaks in symbols.

Depending on which one you chose (#1 or #2), this topic will strike you in different ways.

Your choice points towards certain axioms that you hold dear and deep, perhaps unconsciously.  An axiom is a “self-evident truth that requires no proof”. 

Tricky business when it comes to your view of Reality. 

Ironically, we are already encountering Confirmation Bias (see below) which is an aspect of our topic here – “apophenia”.

INTRODUCTION:

This ought to be a good one for self-reflection and contemplation.

Let’s start with a standard definition of “apophenia”:  the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas). 

You can easily see the bias in this definition which acts to support #1 above (there is no meaning outside of the human perception of meaning).

Or more simply – the common view of apophenia is the human desire to see patterns in data or events even when they don’t actually exist. It is also known as patternicity which means seeing patterns in random events.

It also applies when people deduce meaning from numbers, images, shapes, or any other objects that are truly random.

It is part of a behavior that keeps us sane…or perhaps drives us insane.

Considering the fact that our human brain is often considered a “a pattern seeking and recognition organ”, apophenia has got to be like playing Russian Roulette and wondering when you will get lucky – or not. 

Is the perceived “connection” real or not – is the apparent pattern fact or fantasy?

Recognized or imagined?

And before we go even one step further along this potentially long path, let’s remind ourselves that every culture in its own time, interprets experience through its own unique set of lens and filters. 

Certainly, with most of our contemporary culture absorbed by scientific materialism and often in abject denial of the value of subjective conscious experience, a topic like “apophenia” will predictably generate controversy.  Our science and much of our psychology is metric based with statistical mathematics at the tip top of analysis. 

Scrutinizing pattern generation is at the very core of statistical analysis which brings apophenia directly in the harsh light of consideration.

Let’s go a bit deeper into “apophenia”. 

A better inspection of apophenia will make the rest of this article a lot more interesting and hopefully, understandable (aka “fun”).

ABOUT APOPHENIA:

Apophenia is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things. 

The term was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia. He defined it as “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”. 

He described the early stages of delusional thought as self-referential over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions, as opposed to hallucinations. (Wikipedia)

Basically, from this perspective, apophenia is a cognitive mistake – at least by standard theories in our current neuropsychology. 

Technically, it is considered a “Type 1 Error”.

It is a conceptual mistake in the interpretation of a perception. 

In psychology, apophenia is often sliced into four categories or types:

1)      Pareidolia;

a.      the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus, often visual, so that one sees an object, pattern, or meaning where there is none.

b.      Example: perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, seeing faces in inanimate objects, or lunar pareidolia like the Man in the Moon or the Moon rabbit. The concept of pareidolia may extend to include hidden messages in recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds, and hearing voices (mainly indistinct) or music in random noise, such as that produced by air conditioners or fans. (Wikipedia).

2)      Gambler’s Fallacy;

a.      the belief that the probability of a random event occurring in the future is influenced by the past history of that type of event occurring.

b.      Example: The roulette wheel’s ball had fallen on black several times in a row. This led people to believe that it would fall on red soon and they started pushing their chips, betting that the ball would fall in a red square on the next roulette wheel turn.

3)      Clustering Illusion;

a.      The clustering illusion is the tendency to erroneously consider the inevitable “streaks” or “clusters” arising in small samples from random distributions to be non-random.

b.      Example (in business): a cognitive bias in behavioral finance in which an investor observes patterns in what are actually random events. In other words, clustering illusion bias is the bias that arises from seeing a trend in random events that occur in clusters that are actually random events.

4)      Confirmation Bias;

a.      the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

b.      Example:  imagine that a person holds a belief that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. Whenever this person encounters a person that is both left-handed and creative, they place greater importance on this “evidence” that supports what they already believe.

IS SYNCHRONICITY A FORM OF APOPHENIA?

Synchronicity: standard definition is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. 

The term synchronicity was coined in the 1950s by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, to describe uncanny coincidences that seem to be meaningful. The Greek roots are syn-, “together,” and khronos, “time.” 

This idea was part of Jung’s notion of a collective human unconscious. According to Jung, this was at the root of some behaviors, thoughts, and dreams.

A synchronistic occurrence typically happens only once and is observed by only one person.

Rather than a test of a hypothesis, synchronicity becomes a test of belief. A cardinal, defining challenge with synchronicity is the impossibility of replication.

A synchronous event occurs only once, and that defines its impact.

One of the main problems with synchronicity is that it implies a correlation between the real and the unconscious.

We accept the correlations of physics and even the more doubtful correlations of economics, but we typically cannot accept a correlation between the real and the unknown.

Jung, however, regarded synchronicity as an empirical, not philosophical, issue and converged to the notion that synchronicity is a discontinuity in causality.

Physics is replete with other forms of discontinuity; but the discontinuity implied by synchronicity is too discontinuous for most of us. (Significance, Kim Sawyer, Dec. 2018)

From those that consider “synchronicity” to not be an expression of apophenia, the explanation goes something like this:

Synchronicity is the sort of odd coincidence that tends to smack you out of nowhere when you’re not looking, and it’s often accompanied by a feeling of incredulity and self-doubt: am I really seeing this?

And then it keeps bombarding you in completely unrelated and impossible ways until you stop dismissing and fully acknowledge it.

Synchronicity isn’t driven by a desire at all.

It catches you off guard and gives you a small, eerie glimpse into matrix.

A good general rule of thumb is whether or not it catches you off guard. If it catches you off guard, it’s most likely a sync.

If you’re actively looking for it, it’s probably not. (Inmysacredspace.com)

APOPHENIA & SCHIZOPHRENIA:

Apophenia can be a normal phenomenon or an abnormal one, as in paranoid schizophrenia when the patient sees ominous patterns where there are none.

In psychology, the pathology of schizophrenia is studied as an extreme shift along a tendency called “schizotypy”. 

Schizotypy can be viewed as a sliding scale and not an absolute metric.  So, a person can operate somewhere along the schizotypic scale with both positive and negative outcomes. 

Paranoid schizophrenia would be an involvement at the extreme negative expression.

From the negative perspective, schizotypy “refers to traits such as unusual and disorganized patterns of thinking, together with interpersonal difficulties, that may raise vulnerability to schizophrenia”. (Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders, Gabbard & Iskander).

However, from a positive position, schizotypy can also be considered in relation to the broader disposition referred to as “Openness to Experience” which permits one to perceive and recognize purposeful patterns existing in the flow of experience.

THE RAZOR’S EDGE:

So, if one can step back from our current medical template and consider schizotypy as a “sliding scale” characteristic that identifies a natural and neutral capacity of the brain/mind with the possibility of both positive and negative outcomes…the two choices posited above at the beginning of this article 

  1. there is no meaning outside of the human perception of meaning;
  2. everything has implicit meaning and the world speaks in symbols  – may actually be simultaneously compatible and correct.

The challenge then becomes obvious. 

How does one know if one is experiencing a Holistic Insight or a Deluded Misunderstanding? 

I expect that the very first step in clarification is admitting that each one is a possibility. 

Belief systems help us frame the world and our experiences in it.  A willingness to learn and grow entails the possibility of modifying our beliefs.

As I said above – Tricky business when it comes to your view of Reality.