Apophenia is the discovery of meaning in experiences that do not support it. For example, August Strindberg wrote:
I found two dry twigs, broken off by the wind. They were shaped like the Greek letter for ‘P’ and ‘y’… [I]t struck me that [they] must be an abbreviation of the name Popoffsky. Now I was sure it was he who was persecuting me…
This is paranoia, of course. And paranoia is a form of apophenia, but apophenia can also take on the appearance of healthier states of mind.
In scientific research apophenia is known as the ‘Type 1 Error’, defined as ‘incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis’. For example, a drug under test might be assumed to be effective because it has a positive effect on all the test patients. Yet if there are only two patients, it would be unsurprising if the ‘effect’ was really just due to chance.
Apophenia is not always arrived at in error. In the field of live action role-playing games the intentional use of apophenia can produce desirable results. Prosopopeia Bardo 1 was a live action game played around Stockholm in 2005, and included locations, actors and props distributed throughout the city. Because the context of the game – described by game theorists as its ‘magic circle’ – was so inclusive, participants had to confront whether situations they encountered were really a part of it. The possibility of interpreting people or events as part of the game’s ‘magic circle’, when in fact they were nothing of the kind, produced an experience far more immersive and compelling than usual.
The game players brought their own set of extraordinary meanings to their journeys and interactions around the city. As long as they were operating within the game’s magic circle these were appropriate, but on a number of occasions there were interactions between game players and others who were not a part of the game. The serious confusions that arose can easily be imagined.
This also illustrates why apophenia is an important concept in paranormal research, because the mind’s tendency to extract meaning from everyday experience can similarly step outside the ‘magic circle’ of what is considered ordinary. In that case, meanings can be made to manifest and appear as completely real. In apophenia, any conceivable meaning can become real. Logical or physical impossibility poses no boundary, and therefore ‘paranormal’ situations and figures are free to appear.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following photograph:
It’s a washbasin. But because our minds are hard-wired for discerning human faces, we can’t help seeing in this washbasin a face. For most people the face is ‘real’; it conveys a quite specific emotion and character. It’s more than a visual pattern. A washbasin is transformed into a unique personality.
This is a form of apophenia known as a simulacrum, which occurs when something we see (a washbasin) strongly resembles something else (a face), but not strongly enough for us not to be able to tell the difference.
In the case of the latter, pareidolia is a term we might use. Pareidolia is not so much about ‘one thing looking like another’, but more about ‘nothing looking like something’. The famous ‘Face on Mars’ is an example of pareidolia.
The fuss was not because the hill looked like a face, but because there might have existed a hill that looked like a face. Faces of the Virgin Mary on slices of toast, or the name of God written in the seeds an aubergine follow a similar dynamic: that such a thing could happen or be real seems more important than the details of what it actually looks like (which are often fuzzy or rather vague). Pareidolia is similar to the Type 1 Error, but in the context of subjective perception rather than statistical data.
If paranoia, Type 1 Error, simulacra and pareidolia are all instances of apophenia, then it’s clear it is a very wide term. Paranoia and Type 1 Error fall within the domain of thinking and concepts. Simulacra and pareidolia apply to the domain of perception. Although it would be hard to verify, I would guess that emotional apophenia also occurs. In religious contexts, I think it’s likely people may mistake ordinary feelings (e.g. simple happiness) for ecstatic spiritual insights; or, in the context of a ‘haunting’, someone might ascribe their feelings of depression to ‘negative vibrations’.
Yet I think it’s too easy to regard apophenia as allied only to misperceptions and mistakes. Rational thinking requires the identification of meaningful connections and patterns. The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) named this faculty ‘abduction’ and regarded it as an essential component of scientific reasoning. He emphasised, however, that abductive reasoning must be validated by ‘deduction’ and ‘induction’, his other two components, otherwise apophenia might result.
So it would seem that apophenia is a component of reason run wild. Abduction is the faculty that supplies creativity to reason and, because it acts as a bridge between subjective ideas and objective data, it can also be implicated in our sense of what is real. As human beings, we’re driven to search for meaning in our experience. This makes abduction a very attractive faculty, but also – when indulged too much – a dangerous one.
Neil Dansey (2008). Facilitating Apophenia to Augment the Experience of Pervasive Games.
Sandra L. Hubscher (2007). Apophenia: Definition and Analysis.