“We see faces in the clouds and animals in rock formations,” he explains. “We mishear our name being called in crowds and think our mobile phones are vibrating when it turns out to be nothing but the normal sensations of our movement.”
Of course, there are also those endless examples of people who supposedly look like their dogs.
And the people who swore they could hear a “Paul is dead” message when they played the Beatles’ “White Album” backward.
In the clinical setting says Bell, apophenia is often a characteristic of the hallucinations associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In one classic 1972 study, he notes, “more than 80 [percent] of psychiatric patients who experienced hallucinations falsely perceived the sound of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas when asked to listen for it amid the sound of static.”
But, adds Bell, you don’t have to be “out of touch with reality” to hear something that doesn’t exist. In that same study, 40 percent of healthy participants also said they could hear Bing crooning.
“The music was used a decade earlier in one of the first ever lab studies on hallucinations in everyday people,” Bell writes. “The same approach has been used many times since, making Bing Crosby the most hallucinated man in science.”
An explanation for conspiracy theories
As another psychologist, University of Utah’s Bruce Poulsen, pointed out in a Psychology Today article on this same topic last year, “some forms of apophenia help explain certain sequences of behavior — such as the gambler’s fallacy or other misperceptions of probability (this is illustrated most simply by sequential coin tosses where one might erroneously believe that after 5 tosses of heads, the probability of getting tails would somehow be higher than 50%).”
“Apophenia also surfaces in the more complex patterns of our interpersonal world,” he adds. “Conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the twin towers of 9/11 were destroyed in a controlled demolition perpetrated by the government, are confabulations based on misperceived patterns. Such fallacious reasoning also has potentially adverse social consequences. For example, despite a paucity of evidence showing a causal connection, many parents do not vaccinate their children because they believe such vaccinations cause autism.”
A common phenomenon
But, again, you don’t have to be suffering from hallucinations or believe in conspiracy theories to experience this unsettling phenomenon. All of us, at some time or another, see or hear things that aren’t actually there.
Although, as Bell reports, researchers have found that believing in the supernatural or paranormal — or having high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain — apparently helps.
That may explain why so many apophenic objects involve religious images.
Rational people will, of course, dismiss the deep meaning often attributed to apophenic images as being ridiculous — and it is. But seeing those patterns is very much part of the human experience.
“While it’s tempting to view apophenia as merely a defect in our cognitive processing capacities (i.e., something that must be overcome or defeated),” writes Poulsen, “it might be useful for us to view this tendency as being an ironic, even amusing aspect of our nature. We are fooled by optical illusions — apophenia of the visual cortex — but we don’t take such cognitive errors personally.”
“Our relentless detection of patterns is part of our larger search for meaning,” he adds. “Our greatest challenge may be learning to bear incoherence.”