Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. Since Apophenia inherently comes out of a search for meaning in the world around us (finding information in the sights, sounds, and other information noise we are flooded with from moment to moment) it can manifest as several types of perceptions.

Some examples

  • A gambler may perceive sequences of behavior, patterns in numbers or random throws of the dice, or other misconceptions of probability.
  • A parent may not vaccinate their child because they believe such vaccinations cause autism, in spite of a scarcity of evidence showing a causal connection.
  • An individual might see a pattern or image in objects that have no true relationship (see examples).
  • optical illusions are also a type of Apophenia of the visual cortex.

As one writer put it, “our brains are pattern-detection machines,” and there are good evolutionary reasons for seeing things that are not there.

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Humans are very good at pattern-recognition, so good that we often see pattern’s where there are none. Our ability to find meaning in patterns and infer causal relationships from coincidences comes out of very simple Darwinian evolution precepts:

Type 1 error: Apophenia is often the basis of this type of error. We see eyes in the woods at night that are not there, and it creates a false positive. It other words, our perception is false, it does less harm to be wrong in this case than a Type 2 error.

Type 2 error: We don’t see information in the patterns, i.e., we don’t see the eyes in the woods at night, and it turns out they belong to a leopard. In other words, perceiving danger that is not there (type 1 error) is far less dangerous than not perceiving danger that is there (type 2 error). Better to be paranoid when it comes to survival.

Apophenia is probably very old, since insects have been using camouflage and deception markings (such as eyes on moth wings) for longer than there have been humans.

Apophenia is closely related to Pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon that causes some people to see or hear a vague or random image or sound as something significant.

Web Application

Apophenia has some interesting humancomputer-interaction-design applications in Web graphic and layout design which are best explained the Gestalt principles of form perception.

  • The law of proximity posits that when we perceive a collection of objects, we will see objects close to each other as forming a group
  • The law of similarity captures the idea that elements will be grouped perceptually if they are similar to each other.
  • The law of closure: Object fragments are put together in wholes rather than perceived in parts. For example, in the image below, we “see” two triangles as opposed to separate shapes and images.

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