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The term was coined in 1958by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general (such as with gambling), paranormal phenomena, and religion.
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 without necessarily implying the presence of neurological differences or mental illness.
In 2008, Michael Shermer coined the word 'patternicity', defining it as "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise". In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer defines patternicity as "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise". The Believing Brain thesis also says that we have "the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency", which Shermer calls 'agenticity'.
A common example of perceived, but non-existent pattern are paranormal sightings, including sightings of ghosts, Unidentified Flying Objects, cryptozoology, etc., which may be due to apophenia.
Likewise conspiracy theorists are famously prone to identify a (perhaps coincidental) pattern, and conclude that it must have great significance, although things that are important, life-changing, and even catastrophic, can occur simply out of random chance.
The attempt to foretell the future, present, or past by finding patterns in animal entrails, tossed sticks, or by picking random passages from a holy text are often cited as examples of apophenia. A more extreme example is the pareidolia associated with finding the faces of religious figures in pieces of toast, the grain of cut wood, or other such patterns.
Recent real-world examples include the finding of a cross inside a halved potato; the appearance of Jesus and Mary inside a halved orange; and the appearance of Jesus' face on a piece of toast, in the frost on a car window, and inside the lid of a jar of Marmite.
Apophenia is heavily documented as a source of rationale behind gambling, with victims imagining they see patterns in the occurrence of numbers in lotteries, roulette wheels, and even cards. One variation of this is known as the Gambler's Fallacy.
Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity for the "simultaneous occurrence of two meaningful but not causally connected events" creating a significant realm of philosophical exploration. This attempt at finding patterns within a world where coincidence does not exist possibly involves apophenia if a person's perspective attributes their own causation to a series of events. "Synchronicity therefore means the simultaneous occurrence of a certain psychic state with one or more external events which appear as meaningful parallels to a momentary subjective state". (C. Jung, 1960)
Pareidolia is a type of apophenia involving the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli, for example, hearing a ringing phone while taking a shower. The noise produced by the running water gives a random background from which the patterned sound of a ringing phone might be "produced". A more common human experience is perceiving faces in inanimate objects; this phenomenon is not surprising in light of how much processing the brain does in order to memorize and recall the faces of hundreds or thousands of different individuals. In one respect, the brain is a facial recognition, storage, and recall machine - and it is very good at it. A byproduct of this acumen at recognizing faces is that people see faces even where there is no face: the headlights & grill of an automobile can appear to be "grinning", individuals around the world can see the "Man in the Moon", and a drawing consisting of only three circles and a line which even children will identify as a face are everyday examples of this.
Postmodern novelists and film-makers have reflected on apophenia-related phenomena, such as:
As narrative is one of humanity's 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.
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