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apophenia

There is currently a controversial debate concerning whether unusual experiences are symptoms of a mental disorder, if mental disorders are a consequence of such experiences, or if people with mental disorders are especially susceptible to or even looking for these experiences. --Dr. Martina Belz-Merk

“....nothing is so alien to the human mind as the idea of randomness.” --John Cohen

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by K. Conrad in 1958 (Brugger).

Soon after his son committed suicide, Episcopalian Bishop James A. Pike (1913-1969) began seeing meaningful messages in such things as a stopped clock, the angle of an open safety pin, and the angle formed by two postcards lying on the floor. He thought they were conveying the time his son had shot himself (Christopher 1975: 139).

Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, gives examples of apophenia from August Strindberg's Occult Diary, the playwright's own account of his psychotic break:

He saw "two insignia of witches, the goat's horn and the besom" in a rock and wondered "what demon it was who had put [them] ... just there and in my way on this particular morning." A building then looked like an oven and he thought of Dante's Inferno.

He sees sticks on the ground and sees them as forming Greek letters which he interprets to be the abbreviation of a man's name and feels he now knows that this man is the one who is persecuting him. He sees sticks on the bottom of a chest and is sure they form a pentagram.

He sees tiny hands in prayer when he looks at a walnut under a microscope and it "filled me with horror."

His crumpled pillow looks "like a marble head in the style of Michaelangelo." Strindberg comments that "these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night ... I was greeted by the Evil One himself...."

According to Brugger, "The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity ... apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin." Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be psychoanalysts and therapists who use projective tests like the Rorschach test or who see patterns of child abuse behind every emotional problem. Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for the penis envy theory because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test. Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

Brugger's research indicates that high levels of dopamine affect the propensity to find meaning, patterns, and significance where there is none, and that this propensity is related to a tendency to believe in the paranormal.

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, ganzfeld "hits", most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.

Those of us who have had the pleasure of spending some time with a person having a psychotic episode have often been asked to see the significance of such random things as automobile license plate numbers, birthdates, and arrangements of fallen twigs.

See also divination, pareidolia, the gambler's fallacy, post hoc fallacy, sympathetic magic, and synchronicity.


further reading

books and articles

Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Cohen, John. 1960. Chance, skill, and luck: The psychology of guessing and gambling. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.

Leonard, Dirk M.A. and Peter Brugger, Ph.D. "Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation?" Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, 1998, Vol. 11, No. 4 pp. 177-183. 

websites

Counseling and Help for People with Unusual Experiences at the Outpatient Clinic (Ambulanz) of the Psychological Institute at the University of Freiburg - project leader Dr. Martina Belz-Merk 

The Valujet Plane Crash in Florida, One Year Later - Tom Chase uses astrology and New Age analysis techniques to analyze a plane crash. He thinks "some of the numbers and circumstances involved in this plane crash in Florida show an interesting pattern." I suppose they do.

Apophenia: Definition and Analysis by Sandra L Hubscher (published on Digital Bits Skeptic) Last updated updated 16-Mar-2011

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