Way back on October 15th, 1996, Ryan Finney, the store manager of the Bongo Java house in Nashville Tennessee, made a startling breakfast time discovery. As he picked up his morning cinnamon bun, he noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the saintly and self-sacrificing Mother Teresa. By Christmas, the pastry had become an international phenomenon and the newly branded “Nun Bun™.”
Assuming you, dear reader, do not believe for one moment that this is some supernatural event, prompted by the hand of the divinity of your choice, what you are seeing is the phenomenon of apophenia – the perception of patterns, meanings, or connections where none exists. It’s like looking at a Rorschach ink blot and telling the analyst what you see.
The word itself is relatively new although the phenomenon itself is as old as mankind. It’s first use is credited to the psychiatrist Klaus Conrad back in 1958 in his catchy-titled Die beginnende Schizophrenie: Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns, which translates to the equally scintillating The origins of schizophrenia: A Gestalt analysis of paranoia. The word was coined from the Greek “apo” (ἀπό) meaning “away from” or “apart,” and the word “phren” (φρήν) meaning “mind” or “cognitive faculties” – literally “away from the mind.”
In his recent book, A Dictionary of Hallucinations (2009), the clinical psychiatrist Jan Dirk Blom suggests that the word is actually a misspelling of apophrenia, with the “r” having been lost in translation. However, if the word derives from “apo” and another Greek word, “phainein” (from the root φαίνω) meaning “to make appear,” then apophenia is correct after all. Phonetically, the latter is simpler so the “error” may be explained by a hearer’s desire to make life simpler.
What’s unusual is that this word should appear to be so recent when the actual phenomenon is so old. In his Natural History of Religion (1757) , philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote the following:
There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good will to everything that hurts or pleases us. David Hume
The human tendency to see the world through a glass darkly is demonstrated by a behavior known as the Confirmation Bias. When someone is convinced that they have seen the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich, it’s more likely to be the result of an in-built cognitive bias to interpret the world in such as way as to see evidence for the Hand of God in everything. Why the good Lord would seek to communicate with His faithful by way of a cheese toasty is not a question the faithful would ask – He just does and the image in the bread simply confirms for them that God does indeed work in mysterious ways. Almost as mysterious as how the breakfast snack ended up selling for $28,000 on eBay!
In the world of statistical analysis, apophenia is known as a Type I error. This is often called the “false positive” and happens when data is interpreted as confirming a hypothesis when in fact it does not. It’s effectively when you see a pattern where there isn’t one.
So if you see a face on Mars…
… a giant pig in the clouds…
… or the Number 23 over and over again during a day, the chances are that you are having an apophenic experience and need to remember that to clean your cognitive glasses in a little reality solution.