Apophenia /æpo-fi-nia/ is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.
The term is attributed to Klaus Conrad by Peter Brugger, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general, such as with gambling and paranormal phenomena.
In 1958, Klaus Conrad published a monograph titled Die beginnende Schizophrenie. Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns ("The onset of schizophrenia. Attempt to shape analysis of delusion", not yet translated or published in the English language), in which he described in groundbreaking detail the prodromal mood and earliest stages of schizophrenia. He coined the word "Apophänie" to characterize the onset of delusional thinking in psychosis. This neologism is translated as "apophany", from the Greek apo [away from] + phaenein [to show], to reflect the fact that the schizophrenic initially experiences delusion as revelation. In contrast to epiphany, however, apophany does not provide insight into the true nature of reality or its interconnectedness, but is a "process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field", which are entirely self-referential, solipsistic and paranoid: "being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers". In short, "apophenia" is a misnomer that has taken on a bastardized meaning never intended by Conrad when he coined the neologism "apophany".
In 2008, Michael Shermer coined the word "patternicity", defining it as "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise". In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer says that we have "the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency", which Shermer calls "agenticity".
In 2011, parapsychologist David Luke proposed that apophenia is one end of a spectrum and that the opposite behaviour, the tendency to attribute chance probability to apparently (assuming that there exist relation that one can't currently explain) patterned or related data, can be called "randomania". Luke indicates that this often happens in the hand waving away of everyday phenomena, such as apparent dream precognition, and that this occurs even if research suggests that the phenomena may be genuine, however such researches are often questioned (for instance by anomalistic psychologists).Xavier Waterstone says:I frequent the casino very seldomly; having gambled on only one occasion three years ago, my presence at Melbourne’s Crown nowadays is an affair of analysis and amusement. Many a scenario on the casino floor exemplifies the phenomenon of apophenia. My personal favourite is the roulette wheel. Roulette is without fail the epithet of apophenic stupidity – an electronic display beside each wheel displays a list of the most recent numbers spun, and the casino has pre-printed cards on which I observed people religiously marking down the numbers as they appear.
Confident they’ve compiled a long enough list, these people then draw patterns from the data and typically place bets on those numbers which have appeared with the lowest frequency, on the premise that those numbers’ ‘time is up’ and they’re more likely to be spun next. Evidently, pattern thinking is at work here. Their intuition is that in the long run the dispersion of numbers rolled will revert back to the mean (that is the under-rolled numbers should come up more often to equalise the frequency distribution) Along those same lines of logic, newspapers will publish how frequently each lotto number has come up since the inception of the game.
The clear flaw in this way of thinking is that each turn of the roulette wheel and each draw of lotto is an independent event which is not contingent upon previous outcomes. Picture a European roulette wheel with 37 slots (zero to thirty-six). Now let us say that the number 28 has come up the last four spins. Statistically, there is a 0.00005% or 1 in 1.87 million chance of this occurring. If I were to promise a 20:1 payout that 28 wouldn’t come up next spin – there would be no shortage of takers. Why? Because we are generally hard-wired to rely on pattern thinking in our evaluative reasoning and decision making process – “28 has come up four times in a row; there’s no way it could come up again – that would be…almost…impossible” and so the 20:1 bet is oft taken because it seems commonsensical.
But of course, because the result of the next spin is an independent outcome, it pays no heed to the outcomes of historical spins. Therefore there is exactly a 1 in 37 or 2.7% chance of 28 coming up in any given spin. So taking my offer of a 20:1 payout is a terrible bet . If you bet one dollar, of the 37 equally probably outcomes, you’d get back or ‘win’ $20 in one of them, but lose your dollar in the other 36. Thus the mathematical expectation is that for every dollar you bet, you would expect to lose 43¢ – clearly no-one with half a brain would take such a bet.
Therein apophenia rears its head – the card-marking roulette players are making decisions based on patterns. Patterns which have been lifted from unsystematic (random) and meaningless information on the past spins of the wheel. Yet many gamblers in such games seem to think they have the house beat because they possess some exceptional aptitude. Delusions of grandeur.