Detecting a pattern within a sequence of ordered units is a cognitive ability that we all possess and it is important in learning mathematics and influential in learning to read.
A more modern kind of pattern recognition is the automated recognition of patterns and regularities in data and it is used in statistical data analysis, signal processing, image analysis, information retrieval, bioinformatics, data compression, computer graphics and machine learning. But a human extension of that ability is called apophenia.
Apophenia is when we perceive meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things. The term was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia. Conrad saw this abnormal meaningfulness and over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions. These are not hallucinations. He saw this as an indicator of the onset of mental disease.
The term’s meaning has evolved somewhat and many people who experience this misperception are not mentally ill.
Pareidolia is a type of apophenia involving the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli. One famous example is the “Face on Mars.” An image taken by Viking 1 in 1976 had people then speculating about whether this face on the red planet might have been carved by aliens. A second photo taken by a later mission showed the area without deep shadows and it looked less like a face. (It even provided some content for the Brian DePalma film, Mission to Mars, which was inspired by a Disney theme park ride.)
Pattern recognition is not always a visual misperception. Gamblers may think they see patterns in the numbers that appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels. A winning player may be seen as being on a hot streak. This is sometimes known as the “gambler’s fallacy”.
Apophenia is a common effect of brain function. As with phobias, when it is taken to an extreme, it does seem to indicate some psychiatric dysfunction. A film that portrayed this is A Beautiful Mind.
This biographical film based is based on the life of the American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. As a mathematician, Nash’s brilliance came from his ability to discern patterns in data. He could find order in what looked like chaos. It brought him to the attention of the Department of Defense, as seen in the clip below.
Unfortunately, Nash’s talent turned into apophenia and he began to see patterns where there were no patterns and he developed paranoid schizophrenia. He began to see hostile patterns, including a vast conspiracy against him.
Apophenia is common in conspiracy theories where coincidences are often stitched together into a perceived plot.
There are everyday examples of pareidolia “hidden faces” which are the “chance images” that we see in clouds, stains on a wall, a face in a slice of toast, the “Man in the Moon” or just a wall outlet. In a Rorschach Test, we are asked to find a pattern in random shapes.
Recognizing patterns is a critical cognitive practice for everyday life, but when it goes beyond “normal” into apophenia or even further it becomes a problem.