What is Apophenia?

cloud shape

Apophenia is to make connections between seemingly unrelated things. It happens in the way people see images in the clouds in the sky or people see Mother Theresa’s face on a potato chip. There is a children’s book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst that touches on this idea as well. Alexander starts his day waking up with gum in his hair and tripping over his skateboard. The rest of the day follows a series of events that makes it a “terrible, horrible, no good, very day.” When series of events happen like that, it sometimes feels as though the world is against you or the universe is conspiring against you. The book ends sweetly with Alexander reminding himself that his “mom says some days are like that.” In reality, many people feel like Alexander, making a connection amongst all the terrible events of the day. Apophenia, or identifying patterns, is everywhere in many ways.

Identifying patterns is a part of the cognitive process. At an evolutionary and biological level, recognizing patterns helps people survive. At a relational level, it helps individuals connect and relate to one another. There are different examples regarding apophenia like images seen in clouds. Other examples occur even in how people approach gambling and probability. Many people fall into a gambler’s fallacy trap. It is the idea that if something happens more frequently in the beginning it is less likely to occur later. In reality, depending of the gambler’s game of choice, the occurrence is completely random. Another example is the way people view probability. When flipping a coin, there is always a 50/50 chance it will land on heads. Even if the coin lands on tails 10 times in a row, the probability remains the same. Individuals may feel that a heads is “due” but in reality, it has the same probability every time regardless of outcome. The examples from the children’s book and probability are described as the Type I error, seeing patterns where no patterns actually exist. The Type II error is missing the pattern when it actually does exist. An example might include a wife’s husband is constantly “working late,” comes home smelling of alcohol and perfume, and has receipts in his wallet indicate he bought lingerie 3 months ago that she’s never seen before. Many people would see the pattern and assume there was something shady happening. To miss the pattern would fall under the Type II error.

Apophrenia can also be seen as a sign or beginning stages that are symptomatic of schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia often include delusions of thought and over-analyzing certain sensory input. For those experiencing schizophrenia, apophrenia occurs at an extreme level coupled with delusions, hallucinations, and even some paranoia. In schizophrenia, individuals experience stimuli and make “meaningful” connections between things that are unrelated. The presence of apophrenia can be a beginning symptom of schizophrenia, but it does not necessarily indicate someone is trending towards that particular diagnosis.

In reality, identifying patterns is a frequent and necessary part of the human cognition. However, it is important to recognize patterns that are actually present and be careful not to see a relation between things that does not actually exist.

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Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.
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