Do the Apophenia


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

We do the apophenia when we see the Virgin Mary in the grill patterns of a grilled cheese, when we see a baked turkey in a cloud formation, and in the unmistakable manner in which a river parts on a shoreline. “Hey, that’s Bob Hope!” we inform friends that never share our case of apophenia. 

ChessusFor some of us, the physical connections we make are neat coincidences worthy of note, for others it could be a sign, but for others these connections take on a spiritual meaning. These connections are also made in science, math, the manner in which we study the universe, and the way we study one another.

One psychoanalyst sees child abuse behind every emotional problem their patients have. He may have seen one substantial and irrefutable case that proved to have profoundly affected one patient’s life, and it prejudiced that psychoanalyst in every case that followed. Another man of science achieves conclusions that back up the idea of penis envy in females when his females test subjects fail to return the pencils he gave them for the test. Another sees the old adage “don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back” as a more substantial reaction to the fears of the act of intercourse, as the stepping on a crack represents the penis entering the vagina. Science, and the drama of daily life, has humans spotting patterns to explain why we do what we do on a daily basis. Some of the times, the patterns exist. Some of the times they don’t, but if we don’t have patterns to our daily life we fear we may go crazy in the chaos of our studies of who we are.

Seeking a Progressive Intellect

Humans are born with a brain that questions the world around them. When we enter our teens, we question everything we’ve been taught to that point in our lives. Our rock stars, movies, and books teach us something different about life, and they’re usually better looking, and cooler, than our parents, so we believe the rock stars. Our parents are idiots. We then enter our thirties, and we begin to then question our teen rebellion. We begin to think our parents may have had a point about certain things in life, even if we would never give them credit for it. We have experienced a little bit of life to this point, and everything the rock stars and celebrities told us about life has fallen apart. Our rock stars may know a lot about coordinating music, but most of their casual asides about life have proven to be short-sighted. Our favorite rock stars become the idiots. When we enter our forties, and experience even more in life, we finally reach a point where we have our own ideas about life that is an amalgamation of rock star advice, parental advice, and personal experience. We now think our parents were idiots again, but we now have confirmation that we were idiots for ever believing that rock stars knew anything about real life. The one consistent aspect of this consistent questioning is that we question everything. We need explanations. It’s elemental to our DNA.

We’ve even gone so far, at various points in our lives, to question the existence of God. Writer Norman Mailer once asked, “If God didn’t want us to question His existence, why did He give us a progressive intellect?” If He wanted ultimate authority, without dissent, why didn’t He just give us the brain of a chimpanzee and be done with it? If God were insulted to the point of damning us, in the afterlife, every time we questioned Him, why did He give us a degree of brainpower that exists somewhere between His and the chimpanzee’s?

He didn’t give us a brain that could comprehend the enormity of the universe He created, but He did give us a brain that wanted to somehow and in some way. He gave us a brain that would try to break it down into bite-sized morsels for easier digestion. He gave us a brain that sought out patterns and tendencies in the universe and developed mathematical and scientific hypotheses based on those readings. He gave us a brain that could develop findings that helped us understand one small tidbit of the universe with the hope that it would eventually lead to a representative pattern of the manner in which the entire universe operates. He gave us brains that will make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, and laugh at those mistakes, but he gave us a brain that progressively seeks greater answers based on the small windows He gave us. The mistakes that we make are mistakes of apophenia, or connecting unrelated data in a meaningful manner, but in many ways we can’t help making such mistakes. It’s the way of our minds. Some have suggested that God may have made our brains the way He did for His own entertainment, and others have innumerable reasons that they believe, but no matter what the truth is, it’s hard to imagine that He would be insulted or aggrieved by us using the gift He gave us to its fullest extent.

Studying the Patterns in Life

We study the patterns of our politicians to try to understand why they act the way they do, and we study voting patterns to see how their rhetoric is affecting and influencing us. Employers study patterns to try to discover a manner in which they can make their employees more productive. Employees study patterns in their work to attempt to become better employees. Apophenia will enter into these studies, but we will correct those mistakes in the hope of eventually achieving a sound, representative pattern of the way all of our universes work.

We would love to have a comprehensive pattern for understanding the ways of humanity, but that would be as impossible as achieving a comprehensive pattern of the universe. So, we judge humanity based on the patterns we see, and some of it’s anecdotal, and some of it’s wrong, but we can’t help it, it’s the way our minds work.

The difference between the two studies is when one makes an incorrect, or incomplete, assessment regarding the manner in which the universe operates, he is then allowed to input the new data and correct the assessment. When one makes an incorrect, or incomplete, assessment of humanity, he is considered so wrong that he is eventually discredited. All of us read these assessments with the belief that they do not apply to us, so the assessments are therefore incorrect. We are all outliers in every study, because we’re all individuals, and the idea that the study may be based on general rules means nothing to us. It’s just wrong, and it needs to be corrected… Even if it does, in some manner, apply to us in ways we either can’t, or won’t, admit.

These studies do apply to our friends, however, and it pleases us to recognize their patterns in the studies. It gives us a window into an understanding for how they work. We expect them to be shocked when we spot their patterns, or even complimented by the fact that we have paid such attention to them. More often than not, however, they are insulted. They are insulted, because they live with the belief that they are random creatures that live lives that are so complicated that they cannot be figured out through a random sampling of their otherwise simple brethren. Those of us who study these patterns only do so, because we are generally curious and observant individuals that make the most of our progressive intellect, but before we get righteous and indignant we are forced to admit that we don’t think these studies apply to us either.

Our friends always tell us we are wrong, or these studies are wrong about them, and some of the times we are wrong. Some of the times, we read patterns incorrectly. Some of the times, we do the apophenia. What do we do then? Do we simply alter our perceived patterns accordingly, or do we buy into the idea that there may be a lot more randomness occurring than we originally believed. Most people abhor patterns when they’re informed of theirs. They often feel like they’re being calling them simple when another points out how predictable they are. Anyone that has engaged in such conversations has found that these reactions are simple and predictable.

Most people aren’t as complicated as they want us to believe. Yet, some of the greatest joys we may experience in life occurs when we are immersed in patterns. Knowing what’s expected of us, and fulfilling that task provides us the joy of accomplishment. Living inside that box that our employers are trying to get us to think outside, gives us a degree of comfort we don’t recognize until we venture beyond the border. Most people prefer routine even if it leads to some degree of boredom. Chaos and unpredictability often leads to confusion and unhappiness, but most people don’t want to be the one that points this out to them.

The endless loop of life’s patterns and trends may say more about us than the idea of a random world. We want to know why we loop, when we loop, and if looping in patterns and trends is productive or destructive. The study of this may tell us why we’re at the upper end of the animal kingdom, for while animals may seek patterns in their mating and hunting rituals, they are far more satisfied with the randomness of the world than we are. A lion may spot patterns in a herd of antelope, but he is not studying them to learn greater truths about the antelope. He is simply trying to locate the easiest and safest mode to attack them and satisfy his hunger. Humans seek patterns for greater understanding, and while it’s a noble pursuit we often do the apophenia in our pursuit of the truth.

A Study of Apophenia

In statistics, apophenia is labeled a Type I error, seeing patterns where no patterns exist. Mistakes are made in statistics when a statistician engages in apophenia. Of course patterns exist in statistics, and studying patterns is the purpose of the study of statistics, but a statistician has to guard themselves from proclaiming an answer is reached before apophenia has been weeded out. They don’t want to leap to a conclusion, in other words, before they have thoroughly tested these patterns against their own perceptions.

It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.{1}

Steve Jobs talked about apophenia as it applies to the random function of the iPod:

“As humans, when we come across random clusters we naturally superimpose a pattern. We instinctively project an order on the chaos. It’s part of our psychological make-up. For example, when the iPod first came out and people started to use the shuffle feature, which plays songs in a random order, many people complained that it didn’t work. They said that too often songs from the same album, or the same artist, came up one after another. Yet that’s what randomness does – it creates counter-intuitively dense clusters.

“We’re making it (the shuffle feature) less random to make it feel more random,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs confessed after Apple was forced to change the feature on the iPod in response to complaints from users. Jobs, and company, changed the programming behind the feature. In other words, each new song now has to be significantly different from what came before, so as to conform to our expectation of randomness.{2}

Customers required that Apple programmers build a feature into the iPod that would make it less random, so we were more comfortable with the idea that it fit our definition of random better. Regardless if there was a pattern to the order in which one song followed another, we spotted one, and we complained. To diffuse the complaints, Apple programmers built in a function that would cause a Metallica song to always follow an Elton John song, so we would see significant contrast in the random and thereby stop searching for the pattern. Say what you want about Apple being uncompromising in their pursuit of perfection with their products, but they are as susceptible to customer complaints as any other company when they receive them in volume.

Feeling Special

SpecialHumans have a need to feel special, but the patterns in day-to-day life normally don’t give one such a feeling. Day-to-day life is usually mundane, pedantic, and exceedingly boring, until you try dying. Dying, or experiencing a near-death experience, can revitalize life. It can give one that special feeling that allows them to appreciate the changing of the leaves, as if for the first time. Seeing a loved one die can wake us through comparative analysis, because we never view these moments as coincidental or happenstance. They’re seminal moments peppered with purpose: “I just talked to Ernie the other day, and he spoke about the death of Peter Sellers … It’s almost like he knew.” Or, “I was just on 158th and Main Street the other day. I went through that very cross walk one week before Ernie did. That could’ve been me.” This gives us a special feeling, an idea that there is a reason we’re alive, and that we must have a purpose or that would be us lying in that casket.

We also believe that special forces have a hand in our romantic entanglements. “I just happened to go to a bar that I never go to, and I just happened to go to the bar to order a drink at the exact moment she did. Fate had to have played a hand there. There’s no other explanation for it.”

The idea that true randomness occurs is impossible for us to grasp. It seems impossible to us that our company just happened to assign Mark and Brenda sit by each other three years ago. Now that they’re married, everyone at the wedding acknowledges that there had to be special forces at work. For some of us, this is simply theoretical fun. For others, it is an undeniable truth. There are no smiles when they say it. They consider such patterns almost creepy in the manner they take place. This is a connection of random coincidences that seem simply too numerous and too coincidental to be anything other than special forces at work.

“You mean to tell me that Tom just happened to be standing in the middle of the street. He said he never just stands in the middle of the street, but he just happened to be there at the exact moment our precious Judy was when a cement truck “just happened” to topple over and almost kill her, until Tom, who just happened to be there, just happened to reach out and grab her. You mean to tell me that all of those circumstances just happened that way?  That there were no special forces at work?”

Do the apophenia if it makes you feel better, we skeptics say, but you’re never going to convince us that it was anything more than an incredible series of coincidences that occurred to save the young girl’s life. We’ll be extremely happy for you, and we may even cry with happiness (we’re not heartless), but we will probably be one of the few outliers that doesn’t buy into the fact that Judy is special, and she was saved by special forces that have a special purpose for her in life.

Special Forces at Work

How many moments in our lives have we appreciated all that life has to offer? How many times, after a life-altering circumstance, have the mundane routines and patterns that once zapped our energy, attained value with a revitalized mindset? We can’t even remember that person that used to wake without remembering the morning. We love life now, and that freight train, called the mundane, no longer has the power it once did. We think about how much time was wasted waiting for the minutes to click by, until we could go home. We think about all those hours spent waiting for the weekend, until the weekend arrived and we were just as bored at home, on the weekend, as we were in the workplace. When that life-altering circumstance came around and shook our foundation, we felt like there were no more coincidences and random occurrences. We realize that we walked around in a stupor through life, in the same manner we used to grow hypnotized driving familiar paths only to get there without remembering the drive. Our eyes are now open to a purpose we can never explain or achieve. We just know that we do things differently now. One would expect that a survivor of this sort would be more welcome to the random life has to offer, but more often than not it probably just changes the pattern temporarily.

{1} http://www.skepdic.com/apophenia.html

{2} http://smorgasborddesign.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/seduction-persuasion/

 

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