APOPHENIA.

I’ve discovered an excellent new word, apophenia, described here:

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

I presume the word (which has not yet made it into the OED) is based on Greek apophaino ‘show forth, display’ and thus represents a hypothetical *apophainia (the actual Greek derived nouns are apophansis and apophasis), so that the proper UK spelling would be “apophaenia” (though googling that form turns up only a page from a Russian medical dictionary giving it as the etymon of Russian apofeniya; a nice question is whether that can be considered a correct etymology).
Anyone curious about why this word should appeal so to me may consult my entries on Coincidence and More coincidence. Probability theory is extremely unintuitive for us poor Homo sapiens, doomed to see meaning in every damn thing.

Comments

  1. I don’t believe in numerology at all, but sometimes when I’m tired or slightly drunk I will find patterns in lists of phone numbers or relationships between phone numbers and addresses, or between the letters in the names of different people who have something in common. I usually stop myself before I say anything, but every once in awhile I’ll throw one of these non-existent patterns into conversation and get a weird look.

  2. Danah Boyd, a PhD student at UC Berkeley who is a well-known “social technologies” researcher, has a blog titled Apophenia, with a secondary title of (as you might expect) “Making Connections Where None Previously Existed”).

  3. The word comes up several times in William Gibson’s latest, “Pattern Recognition.”

  4. i came across your website looking for a translation for the Romany word “patrin” (forgetting that there is a glossary on the Patrin Webjournal which i frequent). My mother is a Romni and i’ve tried to stay active in learning about the culture. Have you checked out Voice of Roma? They’re an organization from Sebastopol California. Is there background information about you on your site? are there several people who run languagehat? Also, do you know why the patrin webjournal hasn’t been updated in 5 years? thanks!

  5. here’s my email address just in case it doesn’t save it: vsafarov@berkeley.edu

  6. Coming across this entry tonight was a bit of meta-apophenia for me. I went online to email a friend about two coincidences that I had experienced tonight relating to pieces of music I recognize but do not know the real titles to. The first I call the “Lizard Music” because every time I’ve heard it, I’ve had an encounter shortly afterwards with some kind of small lizard. Tonight, while not seeing an actual lizard, I saw a sign with a lizard logo. The second has to do with an unknown bit of incidental mucis that I liked and taught myself to play back in 1987 because it appeared on the Minnesota Twins World Series video. Because I didn’t know its title, I invented a name for it. Tonight I made the spontaneous decision to type the made up title into Google. The first hit was on a box score of one of the hockey playoff games between the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Not exactly the same, but still relating to a Minnesota sports team in playoff competition. When I went to email both of these coincidences, I found that the person I was emailing them to had just sent me a link to this entry. How apophenic.

  7. What a great word. Thanks!

  8. A very nice formulation I read once, can’t remember the writer, was that you have to avoid both paranoia and denial, the first defined as seeing patterns where there are none, the second defined as “not seeing” patterns that do in fact exist.

  9. Hat, I think I’ve seen apophenia recently in the context of the grilled-cheese sandwich with an image of the Blessed Virgin on it.
    John Emerson, have you seen A Beautiful Mind? There’s a spooky depiction of what it might feel like to have this kind of “insight”.
    Grishnash, I bet you haven’t googled for “Lizard Music” yet. It’s the name of a young-adult novel by Daniel Pinkwater, and it’s brilliant; give it a try.
    Everybody: don’t you think there must be a neurological basis for that feeling of insight or connection? It’s certainly triggered when we have real insights or make real connections, but it can also be triggered inappropriately. I’ve heard reports from users that under the influence of LSD they experienced profound insights which they couldn’t remember when the trip was over; isn’t it more likely that the LSD triggered the neural mechanism that accompanies true insight, causing the feeling of enlightenment but with no actual content?

  10. Semi-coincidentally, I turned on the computer this morning intending to look up apophantic, which I’d come across in Husserl, and also comes from apo and phaino.
    Didn’t wind up looking it up, because I remembered it meant assertoric or judgmental, I think, and I must have looked it up a dozen times.

  11. ACW, the emotion of insight or connection unaccompanied by cognitive evidence is almost the definition of deja vu, and in fact there’s a contrary condition where an injury to the brain can leave someone in a state where they “recognise” “familiar” people and objects cognitively, the words in quotes because the cognitive recognition is unaccompanied by any emotion of familiarity, which is rather confusing and lonely for the person affected.

  12. interesting indeed!

  13. awesome word!

  14. Hat, thanks for clarifying that this is a somewhat new term. I always look at danah’s blog (already mentioned above) and feel shameful for forgetting what the word means, even though I look it up, like, every time I go to her blog (which I recommend) and see it again. Now I don’t feel so bad.

  15. Jimmy Ho says:

    According to that description, “apophenia” looks a lot like Salvador Dali’s “paranoïa-critique”.
    Maybe it should be pointed out that there are actually two words spelled apophasis (same spirits and tones) in Greek: one that comes from the verb apophemi (later form apophasko) and means “negation”, “denial”, and the one you refer to, which comes from apophaino and means “opinion”, “ruling”, “decision” etc. (colloquial “apofasi”). Only the latter can also be spelled apophansis, though.
    I hope it is clear that I am not trying to “correct” anything, but I thought there might be some confusion for readers who may have seen the words in other contexts (apophantikos is a basic term of aristotelician logics, while apophatikos is the “negative” in “negative theology”).

  16. Excellent point, and I thank you for the clarification (on behalf of those of my readers familiar enough with Aristotelian logic and negative theology to be confused!).

  17. ACW, interesting that you mention A Beautiful Mind. I thought of it too as I was reading the post and starting the thread of comments.
    All in all, a very interesting thread, including the coincidence of Veronika’s coming across Hat’s blog as she was doing her Romany word search.

  18. What a strange coincidence. I mean, nothing at all out of the ordinary occurred to me, or flickered across my screen, as I read this.
    No lizards, no words derived from “apo”, nothing. I haven’t even thought of Aristotle in several weeks.
    Weird.

  19. Well, I have reviewed all this (including your old coincidence posts, LH), and it seems to me that paranoia has not yet been highlighted as much as it might have been. If we understand the notion of paranoia generally, and not exclusively as symptomatic of some psychotic or other mental disorder, we really have something tantamount to this so-called apophenia. I therefore question the need for the new term (much as I appreciate its engaging attributes).
    Commenter a phan, above, mentioned a certain view: you have to avoid both paranoia and denial, the first defined as seeing patterns where there are none, the second defined as “not seeing” patterns that do in fact exist). I am in sympathy with that. We are great consumers and relishers of pattern, meaning, and order. If we are shown an array of pixels that are randomly either black or white, we cannot help but impose order on it by picking out features: small pockets of order jump out of the “ground” of dots; rivers of white or bands of black emerge out of the chaos with all the appearance of design. In fact, informal experiments I have conducted show that one has to alter many pixels “manually” in a random matrix to block such effects. When one shows two matrices, one generated by purely random means and the other so doctored, the doctored one is typically judged as more likely to be the random one than the truly random one is. Such is the inbuilt propensity we have to reject the hypothesis of mere coincidence in favour of the hypothesis of purposeful collocation.
    Clinical paranoia is popularly seen as a matter of feelings of persecution and delusions of grandeur. A more sophisticated view would include ideas of reference as characteristic. And yes, these may all be present. But they are all secondary, and what is primary is an exaggeration of the normal tendency that we all have to perceive or impose order, purpose, design, and intentionality where these are not present.
    The consequences of our apprehending and correcting for this pervasive bias in ourselves are momentous. They invite a reconsideration of design arguments for there being a guiding intelligence behind the universe, and of our understanding of how orderly the universe might be in the first place. The way we attribute motives or lack thereof to others, how we read a text, and indeed our appreciation of art in many modalities – and so on, up to and including our deepest understanding of our deepest selves as orderly entities, with rationally regimented intentions and projects.
    For something clinically oriented but which ruminates usefully on such matters see this article, which is now unfortunately only available cached by Google. (Or am I just finding a link where there is none…?)

  20. Interesting piece. Since it will eventually fall out of Google’s reach, I’ll quote the most relevant bit here (it’s from Reinsurance Notes,
    Vol.1, No.16, November, 1999, no author given):
    Delusions resulting from severe brain damage do not necessarily express any wishes, purposes, or motives. It is different when brain functions go awry in subtler ways, producing experiences that are more common and delusions that are less bizarre. We all have an excess capacity to assign meanings, especially to the behavior of other people, and we all judge people and events by their effect on ourselves. We are inclined to mistake coincidences for causes and blame persons rather than circumstances when things go wrong. Most of us have transient ideas of reference, such as the false belief that someone is looking at us. Students of evolutionary psychology have pointed out that within strict limits, self-centeredness and suspicion are adaptive. Delusional disorders may result from the pathological activity of mechanisms needed to maintain vigilance for survival and reproduction. The symptoms naturally involve the most important matters in life, including love and social acceptance and the fear of death.
    Reproductive needs are reflected in delusional jealousy, erotomania, and delusions of physical unattractiveness. This aspect of delusions was the special interest of psychoanalysis in its early days, although less so at present. (Freud concluded that homosexual desire, repressed and returning to consciousness as its opposite, was the source of delusions of jealousy and persecution.) But sexual desire is not the only adaptation involved. Most somatic delusions reflect the fear of illness and death. Another adaptation is reciprocal altruism, the exchange of promises and favors as a necessity of social life. We cannot rely on this exchange without ways to insure that others are not cheating or defaulting on their commitments. The resulting need for suspicion is a basis for conspiratorial and persecutory delusions.
    Normal vigilance can be transformed into a delusion by external circumstances, individual vulnerability, or both. The delusion may begin with isolation, deafness, an accident, even heightened intimacy or increased responsibility – almost any stress that makes the environment difficult to interpret. For example, immigrants to a new country are often surrounded by strangers who look different, speak an incomprehensible language, and have mysterious manners and customs. The resulting culture shock may inspire the persecutory delusions that have been noticed by psychiatrists and psychologists who treat immigrants….
    The main therapeutic activity is not giving advice or providing interpretations but asking questions: What is the evidence for the conspiracy or betrayal or disease? Do others seem to agree with you, and if not, why not? What other explanations are possible? The process begins with the beliefs that are least firmly held. If the delusion involves a vague conspiracy, patients may lose their conviction of its reality if they fail in the effort to attach distinct features to the supposed conspirators. Preserving a therapeutic alliance with these patients can be difficult because they are so suspicious and mistrustful. They insist on their correctness and recall mainly what they can use to confirm their beliefs. Resistance may be lowered if the delusions are acknowledged as understandable in the patient’s circumstances. The therapist builds trust slowly by showing formal respect, courtesy, and honesty, avoiding both aloofness and excessive warmth and never forgetting that the delusion is a defense that may leave the patient feeling helpless when it has to be abandoned. If the treatment succeeds, the delusion will become a progressively less important part of the patient’s life before it is doubted and eventually repudiated.
    Of course, there’s always the danger that a too-sympathetic therapist will come to share the patient’s delusion, as happened to Robert Lindner in the case described in “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” available in his collection of case studies The Fifty-Minute Hour… Good lord, I just did a search to see if I could find the piece online, and I discovered (here) that Lindner’s patient (anonymous, needless to say, in the case study) was actually Paul Linebarger, better known to science fiction fans as Cordwainer Smith! Excuse me, I have to go lie down and think about this.
    Oh, but you’re wrong about the need for the word “apophenia.” While it may be true that the phenomenon so described is the “primary characteristic” of paranoia (though I don’t know how you’d prove that to anyone’s satisfaction), that doesn’t change the fact that in English as spoken by ordinary speakers, as opposed to psychologists who share your view of things, “paranoia” = “they’re all out to get me.” Nobody is going to describe their feelings of connection as paranoia. The eager acceptance of the word when people run across it speaks for itself.

  21. just playing the Glass Bead Game…

  22. LH, I don’t say that the term apophenia has no place or no role to play. I question (not deny, note) the need for it, but that’s when I think (as I tend to do) in terms of an idealised taxonomy of such features of the life of the mind. Yes, of course we need the newer and less laden term if paranoid is almost universally understood merely in terms of its typical symptomatic manifestations.
    Jimmy Ho notes the connexion with Dalí (above), and that one is very close to the apophenic “reading” of paranoia. Jimmy may have come across this in OED, which he appears to frequent (to his credit):
    D. Gascoyne Short Survey Surrealism v. 102 Dali claims that it is the paranoiac faculty that enables him to discover a head where there was, until he looked at it, only an African village.
    But I acknowledge that the apophenic acceptation of paranoia is not common.
    However we refer to the relevant feature of our lives, it is certainly pervasive, and it is probably essential to our humanness (a word I will defend, as having been used by Coleridge).

  23. Jimmy Ho says:

    Jimmy may have come across this in OED, which he appears to frequent (to his credit)
    Noetica, that’s more credit than I can accept!
    For the record, I do not own any copy of the OED and never use it (I am not proud of it; I know I’ll have to, some day). The only dictionaries I have are the English-French Harrap’s (very unsufficient), an old Greek-American Divrys (where I learned how to write a letter to Mr George Pappas in Youngstown, OH) and an abridged English-Chinese dictionary in pocket format. However, I do use Dictionary.com (which does have OED references) when I am on the Web, but only if I am really curious about a particular word or expression (I am awfully lazy when it comes to English), and it didn’t happen for my comment on this thread. In a way, I am flattered that I came across as an OED reader for once!
    Actually, my familiarity with Dalí’s paranoïa-critique comes from my teenage years, when I was fascinated with surrealism (as an adult, I sided with Caillois against Breton) and used to read Maurice Nadeau’s Histoire du surréalisme at least every two months. It has a chapter called “Dali et la paranoïa-critique”, which describes the “method” and discusses its influence on the movement. According to Nadeau, Dalí (who coined the term around 1930) felt his intuitions about paranoïa were scientifically corroborated by Jacques Lacan’s MD thesis (published in 1932) De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (young Lacan was a friend of Raymond Queneau’s, then a Surrealist, with whom he attended Alexandre Kojève’s historical lectures on Hegel).

  24. Jimmy Ho says:

    By the way, LH, parakalo (sorry, no Greek font on this computer)! I had a few philosophy teachers (in France) who felt very uneasy about confusing the apophatic with the apophantic.

  25. No OED? Then I am even more impressed, Jimmy.
    I too have been a student of Dalí’s excesses and an amateur of his coruscations – clearly not as well informed as you, though. I didn’t know about the Lacan angle. Till now I have not been tempted to approach the Lacanian [im]penetralia, but I’ll follow your lead if there are such riches to mine on paranoia.
    (I think we should email on a couple of matters. Be warned!)

  26. And once again, LH brings people together. I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…
    *dodges vegetables*

  27. We’ll get you for that, Hat.

  28. Nobody has even mentioned Seymour Glass, who accused the world of conspiring to make him happy (but committed suicide anyway.) I guess that Salinger’s reputation didn’t survive the Joyce Maynard episode.
    One of the most interesting threads anywhere, anytime. Sorry I missed most of it.
    Perhaps apophenia could designate mild, harmless, paranoia.

  29. “Well, I keep having this strange feeling that people are plotting to do me good. That they’re trying to be benevolent and kind toward me. I don’t know exactly who they are, or why they wish me all this kindness, but…it’s all very fantastic, isn’t it?”
    Narapoia.

  30. Suddenly there wells inside me the megalomaniac impression that I have been a part of something truly grand – something like… the most interesting thread anywhere, anytime. But then I think, nah. We have just received a
    MISDIRECTION
    from
    IDIOCENTRISM.
    Those patterns? They’re out there, I tell you. They’re out there!

  31. I sometimes believe that I control other people’s minds, and sometimes they agree.

  32. I’m not as paranoid as you all secretly think I am.

  33. I’m just reporting what everyone else says, N.

  34. As an ‘apophenic’ astrologer, it’s clear to me that the more you look for connections, the furtheraway from the centre you get. Apophenia suggests the the ability to intuitively wed unrelated phenomena and derive novelty as a result.

  35. rebelwriter says:

    The connections are there. Stop staring at the lines and start trying to read the spaces. Neither couold exist without the other.

  36. Tazewell says:

    Neal, one of the early posts on this word topic, noted as did I that William Gibson, in his brilliant 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition, (after the term coined by McCluhan as the most vital ability of information gatherers), used the word apophenia (including definition, which he also disputed a bit.) Though I’ve been involved since the early 70s in keeping a journal of seemingly random but meaningful events or ‘coincidences; this was the first time I had encountered this word.
    I understand that the marvelous August Strindberg was accused by psychiatrists of being psychotic due to his propensity towards what they termed ‘apophenia.’ Leave it to a criminal field like psychiatry, with their ECT, lobotomy, ‘therapeutic castration’ and Prozac to assault any evidence of the mystic or divine as madness. Worthy of mention that, in the psychiatric mouthpiece the New York Times, Sunday Science section in 1987, was an article stating that “The fastest growing schizophrenia in the Western world is the belief that one is a soul which can leave the body.” As an animist, artist and psychedelics expert, I just had to laugh at that one. To think the word ‘psyche’ bears on the Greek for soul and these villains usurped it for their name, then damn it with such insipid disinformation as that…
    In mostly 2-3 line notes, I’ve amassed a journal (long-since entered in a Quark page layout), of over 200 pages length of such incidents from my experience, since 1973.
    Rather than attempt to convince others of the authentic, rather than delusory importance of the phenomena of what WIlliam Burroughs called ‘Intersection Points’ and others have called ‘Synchronicity’; I suggest that anyone may start keeping a journal of these types of events in their own life and that in the process can learn for themselves that it is not ‘false’, ‘paranoiod’ nor demented. As with the keeping of a dream journal (my dream journal is over a thousand word-processor pages from 1968-2005), the more you notate, the more you recall. In the case of such a journal of Intersection Points, you will shortly see that the more you note them, the more plentiful and indeed, often deeply meaningful they are.
    Or you can stay in the mentally flatline universe of spychiatry…

  37. it is not ‘false’, ‘paranoiod’ nor demented
    No, but it is coincidental. That’s the thing about coincidences: they’re everywhere.

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