Nonsense is nonsense. But the study of nonsense? That is a science.
- Apophenia is when the human mind finds meaning in the meaningless.
A specific well-known special case of apophenia is “pareidolia”: the seeing of human faces in things which do not contain human faces. Like this face on Mars, or Jesus in this piece of toast.
Face on Mars
Jesus in a piece of toast
The problem with confirmation bias is that once you know what it is you begin to see it everywhere.
Apophenia is normal. But when apophenia is increased beyond normal limits, hyperapophenia is achieved.
Apophenia is a risk any time that a "search for meaning" is performed. And searches for meaning, high and low, are performed constantly.
A low example: as I type this on a phone, the phone's software is looking at every word I type, and searching for meaning. If it sees an error it quickly tries to substitute it with the correct word. If it gets it right, we don't even notice. If it gets it wrong, we're frustrated. If the mistake has an accidental second meaning, then it can be funny. It's reminiscent of a Freudian slip.
When there is a motivation, a reward, a series of tantalising clues, then the hyperapophenia is induced.
Precursors to Hyper-Apophenia.
- The experience of serendipity is a precursor to Hyper-Apophenia. The feeling of déjà-vu
The Onset of Hyper-Apophenia
- When people are instructed to look for hidden meaning, and particularly if they are incentivized to look very hard for hidden meaning, a bout of hyperapophenia is guaranteed
Case study: hunt for the golden hare
As documented this goes all the way to the queen
People trying to solve a puzzle book
Lost their minds.
Somewhere Richard Feynman writes that when the quantum electro dynamic theory fell upon him he had a vision for a moment that the entire universe might be a single subatomic particle bouncing back and forth through time interacting only with itself. I've never been able to find the place where he wrote. If you know it please write it on a postcard and send it to me here in the penitentiary.
(It is on such a day that I am apt to make one of those haphazard encounters which will alter the course of my life.)
(I have, since, found the quote from Feynman… and lost it again…)
(And found it again!)
Wherein we read:
I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!"
Richard Feynman recounts John Wheeler’s free wheeling theory - or rather - a single electron nipping and weaving back and forth through Space and time, in the shape of Richard Feynman, recounts a theory spoken by other times at which that same electron went ducking and weaving backward and froward in time to create the continuous illusion of a John Wheeler
Wheeler’s Theory has never been proven to be true.
You — my friend— are a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plon, designed and directed by just one electron.
The Ram Sees: Ramsey’s Theory
Ramsey's theorem states that
one will find monochromatic cliques in any edge labelling (with colours) of a sufficiently large complete graph.
Frank Plumpton Ramsey, after whom the theory is named, is also, so it happens, quite by chance, the discoverer of this theorem. Apophenia can be an early sign in the onset of schizophrenia. An ironic eruption of apophenic manifestations can co-occur in numerous maladies of the mind, quite by chance.
But what of people who fail to see the meanings right in front of them? What syndrome have they fallen to?
The opposite of pareidolia is a set that includes items such as “propopagnosia”, a situation whereby, when reaching for your hat you're likely to almost remove from its shoulder's your own wife's head, or so the classics would let us believe, quite by chance. But beyond propopagnosia, what is the more general syndrome of failing to pick up meanings, when meanings are truly there? Dullness of the mind. Feeling sleepy.
A doctor decides to administer a Rorshach test and takes the cards from his desk, shows them to the patient who — etc — until the patient responds: "You think I'm obsessed with sex? I'm not the one with all the dirty pictures!"
An unmotivated seeing of connections. In the last months of his life, Hemingway was certain the government were following him.
It's the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They've bugged everything. That's why we're using Duke's car. Mine's bugged. Everything's bugged. Can't use the phone. Mail intercepted.
Even close friends wrote these off as paranoid delusions. 20 years after he died, the FBI released their Hemingway files. 120 pages. He was watched right up until the end.
just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Schizophrenia and Apophenia
- Apart from the obvious (“schizophrenia and apophenia” would be an excellent name for an album), Gwern says the two are very much linked — see Research Ideas: Schizophrenia meaning overload - Gwern.net
Unrelated article of the week
- microtiming in a particular riff of Metallica muster of puppets - this explains everything quite succinctly.
- Under-fitting and its complement.
- Wikipedia: Apophenia
- Scientific American: Patternicity
- Wikipedia: The Library of Babel
- Wikipedia: Pareidolia
- Wikipedia: Confirmation Bias
- Wikipedia: 23 Enigma
- Wikipedia: Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49
- Wikipedia: Borel's dactylographic monkey theorem
- Wikipedia: His Master's Voice (Novel)
- Wikipedia: Illusory Correlation
- Wikipedia: Superstition
- Wikipedia: Blindsight (novel)
- Wikipedia: Freudian Slip
- Masquerade (book)
- The Secret (1982 treasure book)
- 'This Goes All the Way to the Queen': The Puzzle Book that Drove England to Madness Hazlitt 2015
- Masquerade: How a real-life treasure hunt obsessed a nation BBC 2019
- The Extremely Enchanting, Totally Perplexing, Possibly Never-Ending Quest for the Golden Owl
- Wikipedia: The Conversation (1974 film)
- Why we can 'see' the house that looks like Hitler
- The Japanese Museum of Rocks That Look Like Faces
- Fresh claim over role the FBI played in suicide of Ernest Hemingway