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Apophenia is the tendency to attribute meaning to perceived connections or patterns between seemingly unrelated things.[1]Confirmation bias is a variation of apophenia.

The term (German: Apophänie) was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia.[2] He defined it as "unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness".[3][4] He described the early stages of delusional thought as self-referential, over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions, as opposed to hallucinations.[1][5]

Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information, such as gambling.[4]



Pareidolia is a type of apophenia involving the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli.

A common example is the perception of a face within an inanimate object--the headlights and grill of an automobile may appear to be "grinning". People around the world see the "Man in the Moon".[6] People sometimes see the face of a religious figure in a piece of toast or in the grain of a piece of wood.[7]

Pareidolia usually occurs as a result of the fusiform face area, which is the part of the human brain that is responsible in seeing faces, mistakenly interpreting an object, shape or configuration with some kind of perceived "face-like" features as being a face.[8]


In statistics and machine learning, apophenia is an example of what is known as overfitting.[] Overfitting occurs when a statistical model fits the noise rather than the signal. The model overfits the particular data or observations rather than fitting a generalizable pattern in a general population.

Gambler's fallacy

Apophenia is well documented as a rationalization for gambling. Gamblers may imagine that they see patterns in the numbers that appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels.[9] One variation of this is known as the "gambler's fallacy".

Hidden meanings

Fortune-telling and divination often are based upon discerning patterns seen in what most people would consider to be meaningless chance events. The concept of a Freudian slip is based upon what had previously been dismissed as meaningless errors of speech or memory. Sigmund Freud believed that such "slips" held meaning for the unconscious mind (see The Interpretation of Dreams).

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is often seen as the direct influence of desire or beliefs. It is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms a person's preconceptions or the hypothesis that they intend to put forth. This can often lead to people seeing clusters or patterns in data sometimes inadvertently to prove their ideas.[10]

Related terms

In contrast to an epiphany, an apophany (i.e., an instance of apophenia) does not provide insight into the nature of reality nor its interconnectedness, but is a "process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field". Such meanings are entirely self-referential, solipsistic, and paranoid--"being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers".[11] Thus the English term "apophenia" has a somewhat different meaning than that which Conrad defined when he coined the term "Apophänie".


In 2008, Michael Shermer coined the word "patternicity", defining it as "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise".[12][13]


In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer wrote that humans have "the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency", which he called "agenticity".[14]


In 2011, parapsychologist David Luke proposed that apophenia is one end of a spectrum and that the opposite behaviour (attributing to chance what are apparently patterned or related data) should be called "randomania". He asserted that dream precognition is real, and that randomania is the reason why some people dismiss it.[15]

"The Clustering Illusion"

The clustering illusion is a type of cognitive bias in which a person sees a pattern in a random sequence of numbers or events. Many theories have been disproven as a result of this bias being brought up.

In 1985, a study of the "hot-hand fallacy" by Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallon and Amos Tversky found that the idea of basketball players possessing a "hot hand" (tending to shoot better in streaks) was false, their analysis providing "no evidence for a positive correlation between the outcomes of successive shots."[16]

Another case, during the early 2000s, involved the occurrence of breast cancer amongst the female employees at ABC Studios in Queensland. A study found that the incidence of breast cancer at the Studios was 6 times higher than the rate in the rest of Queensland. However, an examination found no correlation between the heightened incidence and any factors related to the site, genetic or lifestyle factors of the employees.[17]


Apophenia is commonly referred to as an error in perception. Though there is no confirmed reason as to why it occurs, there are some respected theories.

Models of pattern recognition

Pattern recognition is a cognitive process that involves retrieving information either from long-term, short-term or working memory and matching it with information from stimuli. However, there are three different ways in which this may happen and go wrong, resulting in apophenia.[18]

Template matching

The stimulus is compared to templates or copies in the long-term memory. These templates are often stored as a result of past learning or educational experiences.

E.g. D d D d are all recognized as the letter D but not any other letter.

These detection routines, when applied on more complex data sets (such, for example, a painting or clusters of data) can result in the wrong template being matched. A false positive detection will result in apophenia.[18]

Prototype matching

This is similar to template matching, except for the fact that you are not looking for an exact match.[18] An example of this would be to look at an animal such as a Tiger and instead of recognizing that it was a Tiger (template matching) knowing that it was a cat (prototype matching) based on the information you know about the characteristics of a cat.

This type of pattern recognition can result in apophenia based on the fact that since your brain is not looking for exact matches, it can pick up some characteristics of a match and assume it fits. This is more common with pareidolia than data collection.[19]

Feature analysis

The stimulus is broken down into its features and allowed to process the information. This model of pattern recognition comes from the result of 4 stages, which are: Detection, Pattern dissection, Feature comparison in memory & finally Recognition.[18]


One of the explanations put forth by evolutionary psychologists for apophenia is that it is not a flaw in the cognition of human brains but rather something that has come about through years of need. The study of this topic is referred to as "Error Management Theory".[20] One of the most accredited studies in this field is Skinner's box and superstition.

Skinner's box and superstition was set up in that he would take a hungry pigeon, place it in a box and release a food pellet at random. The pigeon received a food pellet while performing some action, and thus rather than attributing the pellet falling to randomness, as was the case, the pigeon started doing whatever action it was that they did and continued to do so, till a pellet fell. And thus it was concluded that since the pigeon increased the number of times the action was performed it also increased the times it was 'rewarded' with a pellet, even though it was random.[21]


In a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Helsinki tested 47 people to see the chances of pareidolia, and though the incidence was small, the people who proclaimed themselves as religious saw faces in art shown to them 52% of the time, whereas non-religious people only saw faces 46% of the time. The same type of differentiation existed between paranormal believers and skeptics with 51% and 48% respectively.[22]

In literature

See also


  1. ^ a b Carroll, Robert T. "apophenia". The Skeptic's Dictionary. Retrieved 2017. 
  2. ^ Conrad, Klaus (1958). Die beginnende Schizophrenie. Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns [The onset of schizophrenia: an attempt to form an analysis of delusion] (in German). Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag. OCLC 14620263. 
  3. ^ Mishara, Aaron (2010). "Klaus Conrad (1905-1961): Delusional Mood, Psychosis and Beginning Schizophrenia". Schizophr Bull. 36 (1): 9-13. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbp144. PMC 2800156 Freely accessible. PMID 19965934. 
  4. ^ a b Hubscher, Sandra L (4 November 2007). "Apophenia: Definition and Analysis". Digital Bits Skeptic. Digital Bits Network, LLC. Archived from the original on 21 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought", Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001)
  6. ^ Svoboda, Elizabeth (13 February 2007). "Facial Recognition - Brain - Faces, Faces Everywhere". New York Times. Retrieved 2010. 
  7. ^ "Apophenia". Medical-answers.org. Archived from the original on 2012-03-22. Retrieved . 
  8. ^ Vox (2015-08-05), Why you're seeing a face in this purse, retrieved  
  9. ^ May 28, 2007 at 9:49 pm (2007-05-24). "Apophenia & Illusory Correlation « Paul Xavier Waterstone". Waterstone.wordpress.com. Retrieved . 
  10. ^ "Confirmation bias". ScienceDaily. Retrieved . 
  11. ^ Conrad, Klaus (1959). "Gestaltanalyse und Daseinsanalytik". Nervenarzt (30). pp. 405-410. 
  12. ^ Shermer, Michael. "Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise". Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved . 
  13. ^ GrrlScientist (29 September 2010). "Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception". London: Guardian. Retrieved . 
  14. ^ "Why Do We Need a Belief in God with Michael Shermer". 2011-08-19. 
  15. ^ Luke, David. "Experiential reclamation and first person parapsychology". Journal of Parapsychology, 75, 185-199. 
  16. ^ Gilovich, Thomas; Vallone, Robert; Tversky, Amos (1985-07-01). "The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences". Cognitive Psychology. 17 (3): 295-314. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(85)90010-6. 
  17. ^ "Pathologic and molecular investigations of the ABC breast cancer 'cluster' - National Breast Cancer Foundation". National Breast Cancer Foundation. 2015-11-13. Retrieved . 
  18. ^ a b c d "Pattern Recognition and Your Brain | psychology24.org". psychology24.org. 2016-03-21. Retrieved . 
  19. ^ "Pattern recognition (psychology)". Wikipedia. 2016-12-15. 
  20. ^ Haselton, Martie (January 2000). "Error Management Theory". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 
  21. ^ Inglis-Arkell, Esther. "How pigeons get to be superstitious". io9. Retrieved . 
  22. ^ Riekki, Tapani (October 2012). "Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers". Applied Cognitive Psychology. 27: 150-155. 

Further reading

External links

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