|Photo by Phil Plait|
|copyright Mark D. Phillips|
Under ordinary circumstances, apophenia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based on sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings, as well as the hearing of sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. Pareidolia and apophenia explain numerous religious apparitions and visions. And they explain why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.
Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia and apophenia as a means to understanding a patient, e.g., the Rorschach ink blot test.
According to Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, "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 Freud's notion of penis envy 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.
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).
Brugger gives examples of pareidolia and 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.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.
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 Michelangelo." 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...."
In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where there are none. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia and pareidolia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.
One particular area where apophenia plays a significant role is in the subjective validation that occurs in a cold reading by an alleged psychic, astrologer, palm reader, tarot reader, or medium. Readers throw out words and expressions, sitters find meaning and significance in them. Even if the words are random and impersonal, sitters strive to find personal meaning in them.
It is well known that apophenia and pareidolia are related to the human instinct to see patterns and find meaning; both are rooted in our evolutionary history. Our species has stupendous pattern-recognition abilities, so stupendous, in fact, that we often see patterns where there are none. We've evolved to find meaning in patterns and infer causal relationships from coincidences. "Our understanding of our world is systematically biased to perceive meaning rather than randomness and to infer cause rather than coincidence. And we are usually completely unaware of these biases" (Chabris and Simons, The Invisible Gorilla). Consider how automatic some of these brain processes are:
….visual areas of your brain can be activated by images that only vaguely resemble what they're tuned for. In just one-fifth of a second, your brain can distinguish a face from other objects like chairs or cars. In just an instant more, your brain can distinguish objects that look a bit like faces, such as a parking meter or a three-prong outlet, from other objects like chairs. Seeing objects that resemble faces induces activity in a brain area called the fusiform gyrus that is highly sensitive to real faces. In other words, almost immediately after you see an object that looks anything like a face, your brain treats it like a face and processes it differently than other objects. (Chabris and Simons, The Invisible Gorilla)Add a little religious or political zeal to the brain's natural disposition to recognize faces in just about anything with a shape and a few shadows and you've got the recipe for a dozen tortillas with the "face of Jesus" imprinted on them or a single toasted cheese sandwich that reminds people of President Obama.
It seems likely that our associations of shapes, lines, and shadows are related to our current desires, interests, hopes, and obsessions, even though associative thinking is rooted in our evolutionary history. Most people recognize illusions for what they are, but some become fixated on the reality of their perception and turn an illusion into a delusion. A little bit of critical thinking, however, should convince most reasonable people that a potato that looks like the Hindu god Ganesh, a cinnamon bun that looks like mother Teresa, or a burnt area on a tortilla that looks like Jesus are accidents and without significance. It is more likely that the Virgin Mary one sees in the reflection of a mirror or on the floor of an apartment complex or in the clouds has been generated from one's own imagination than that a person who has been dead for 2,000 years should manifest herself in such a mundane and useless fashion.
Since most of us are innumerate, we often find significance in purely coincidental events. If you think of all the pairs of things that can happen in a person's lifetime and add to that our versatility at finding meaningful connections between things in ambiguous situations, it seems likely that most of us will experience many meaningful coincidences, but we are the ones who give them meaning. Given the fact that there are billions of people and the possible number of meaningful coincidences is millions of billions, it is inevitable that many people will experience some very weird and uncanny coincidences every day. Put another way, with a large enough sample size, just about any possible weird coincidence will happen. This is sometimes called the law of truly large numbers. Those who believe that these meaningless coincidences are truly meaningful call it synchronicity, an expression coined by Carl Jung.
Brugger, Peter. 2001. "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. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.
Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown.
Christopher, Milbourne. 1975. Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.
Leonard, Dirk M.A. and Peter Brugger, Ph.D. 1998. "Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation?" Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, Vol. 11, No. 4 pp. 177-183.
Reed, Graham. 1988. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach. Prometheus Books.
Sagan, Carl. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House.
Schick, Jr., Theodore and Lewis Vaughn. 2010. How to Think About Weird Things. Mayfield Publishing Company.
Zusne, Leonard and Warren Jones. 1990. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.