Identifying patterns is a part of the cognitive process. On an evolutionary and biological level, recognizing patterns helps people survive. On a relational level, it helps individuals connect and relate to one another. However, this this mental process can also malfunction. Apophenia refers to the tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things.
It happens in the way people sometimes see shapes in the clouds or 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 a series of unfavorable events happens, 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 between all the terrible events of the day. Apophenia, or the proclivity to identify patterns, is everywhere in many ways.
There are different examples of how apophenia is manifest, such as seeing patterns in the formations of stars. 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.
Apophenia can also be seen as a sign of schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia often include delusions of thought and over-analyzing certain sensory input. For those experiencing schizophrenia, apophenia 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. While the presence of apophenia can be a 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. If you feel that someone in your life is exhibiting frequent signs of apophenia, consultation with a mental health professional is highly recommended.