Everyday Apophenia

The human brain is an amazing pattern-detecting machine. We possess a variety of mechanisms that allow us to uncover hidden relationships between objects, events, and people. Without these, the sea of data hitting our senses would surely appear random and chaotic. But when our pattern-detection systems misfire they tend to err in the direction of perceiving patterns where none actually exist.

The German neurologist Klaus Conrad coined the term "Apophenia" to describe this tendency in patients suffering from certain forms of mental illness. But it is increasingly clear from a variety of findings in the behavioral sciences that this tendency is not limited to ill or uneducated minds; healthy, intelligent people make similar errors on a regular basis: a superstitious athlete sees a connection between victory and a pair of socks, a parent refuses to vaccinate her child because of a perceived causal connection between inoculation and disease, a scientist sees hypothesis-confirming results in random noise, and thousands of people believe the random "shuffle" function on their music software is broken because they mistake spurious coincidence for meaningful connection.

In short, the pattern-detection that is responsible for so much of our species' success can just as easily betray us. This tendency to oversee patterns is likely an inevitable by-product of our adaptive pattern-detecting mechanisms. But the ability to acknowledge, track, and guard against this potentially dangerous tendency would be aided if the simple concept of "everyday Apophenia" were an easily accessible concept.