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Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness".
Conrad originally described this phenomenon in relation to the distortion of reality present in psychosis, but it has become more widely used to describe this tendency in healthy individuals without necessarily implying the presence of neurological or mental illness.
In statistics, apophenia would be classed as a Type I error (false positive, false alarm, caused by an excess in sensitivity). Apophenia is often used as an explanation of some paranormal and religious claims. It has been suggested that apophenia is a link between psychosis and creativity.
Postmodern novelists and film-makers have reflected on apophenia-related phenomena, such as paranoid narrativization or fuzzy plotting (e.g., Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols", Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and V., Alan Moore's Watchmen, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas, The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and the films Conspiracy Theory, π, A Beautiful Mind and The Number 23). As narrative is one of our major cognitive instruments for structuring reality, there is some common ground between apophenia and narrative fallacies such as hindsight bias. Since pattern recognition may be related to plans, goals, and ideology, and may be a matter of group ideology rather than a matter of solitary delusion, the interpreter attempting to diagnose or identify apophenia may have to face a conflict of interpretations.
The Question, who is a conspiracy theorist in the television series Justice League Unlimited, was mentioned to have apophenia. He claimed to see connections between the Girls Scouts and the crop circle phenomenon as well as spy satellites and fluoridated toothpaste.
In 2006, webcomic author Chris Cracknell drew a short-lived series Apophenia 357, in which each strip is presented without accompanying dialogue; the intent was that the each reader would derive their own storyline based on the artwork alone.
- Clustering illusion
- 23 (numerology)
- Hindsight bias
- Conspiracy theory
- Confirmation bias
Notes and references
- Klaus Conrad, 1958, Die beginnende Schizophrenie. Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns. Stuttgart: Thieme.
- William Gibson, 2003, Pattern Recognition. New York: G. P. Putnam's, 2003.
- Skeptic's Dictionary: Robert Todd Carroll's article on apophenia
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