Apophenia

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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Evolution
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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Gaze detection

Our perception is, more often that we might guess, framed by our brain’s immersion in social interaction. One such perception is “gaze detection,” i.e., that sense that someone is looking at you. This is sometimes known as the “Psychic Staring Effect” (or Scopaesthesia).

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National Geographic’s photo of young Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula’s piercing gaze. Is she looking at you?

In 1898 Psychologist Edward B. Titchener wrote that a class of his students believed they could “feel” someone staring at them from behind, which would force them to turn around. Since then many have claimed that the Psychic Staring Effect is actually a psychic phenomenon, but that notion has been discredited many times. The reasons for gaze detection are much more interesting.

The evolutionary importance of gaze detection 
There are very good reasons for human’s to be hypersensitive to gaze detection. The ability to tell where someone is looking is a critical non-verbal communication that can keep us alive by providing the an early warning system of an impending attack – we are “hard-wired” to err on the side of caution. Gaze detection also serves as an important social survival tool, to help us determine if someone has interested in us. Gaze detection is followed by direct eye contact, which is one of the most powerful non-verbal signals we can tap: it can convey intimacy, trust, intimidation, and influence. Even infants gaze at their parents to get attention and secure social bonds. The evolution of gaze detection is then evident – it’s an essential survival tool.

Factors of the gaze detection system

  • Gaze detection is an indicator that our peripheral vision may provide more information to our brains than we are consciously aware.
  • Gaze detection may be triggered by head and body positions. Reading specific body language clues likely alerts our brain to pay closer attention to the eyes.
  • Brain imaging has shown that superior temporal sulcus brain cells are activated when we see that we are being stared at.
  • The gaze detection system is particularly accurate at a distance. Human eyes make it easier to distinguish the dark center from the rest of the visible (white) eyeball. This makes gaze detection accurate within just a few degrees – we can tell if someone is looking at us or over our shoulders.
  • Gaze detection leads to direct eye contact, which provides crucial and complex communication for survival and reproductive success.

Web applications
Only two possible uses come to mind:

  1. There may be some application for images in marketing through the Web – it’s difficult to get users to look at advertising photos, a direct gaze may help.
  2. Direct eye contact may prove powerful in virtual reality applications/games.

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