She creaks her front door open a crack and peers a bleary, darting eye out to the street. No one. Wait! No, no one. But there! Light gleams off the edge of an empty bottle and at once she knows that the beam was deflected from the sun by God to send her a message not to drive. Certainly today, but possibly forever.

Epiphany is a moment of realization. Apophany is a mental disorder in which the sufferer frequently experiences moments of false realization, i.e. of connections that don't really exist between things. The term was coined in 1958 by K. Conrad, but got more modern attention in 2001 when Dr. Peter Brugger published "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Psuedoscientific Thought" as a Chapter in the book Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Brugger's second example in the chapter is from playwright August Strindberg's book Occult Diary, in which the author recounts his own psychotic break. The examples he provides are nothing less than Lovecraftian.

On seeing shapes in natural rock formations: "In spite of the fact that all this was perfectly natural and just as it should be, I could not help asking myself what demon it was who had put these insignia of witches, the goat's horn and the besom, just there and in my way on this particular morning"

When he observed a germinating walnut under a microscope: "Imagine my emotion when, on the slide, I saw two tiny hands, white as alabaster, raised and clasped as if in prayer. Was it a vision? A hallucination? Not at all! It was a startling reality that filled me with horror."

His crumpled pillow looked "like a marble head in the style of Michaelangelo." Strindberg wrote that "these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night…I was greeted by the Evil One himself…."

William Gibson dragged the word from psychological-circle obscurity with the publication of Pattern Recognition early in 2003. One of its central themes is the messy boundaries between careful observation, paranoia, and delusion. The theme of apophenia is primarily carried by the protagonist's mother, who works with a group dedicated to transcribing other-world voices heard amongst random electronic white noise. Gibson's inclusion of the term in his text spawned a blog-bound meme frenzy, and the Skeptics Dictionary's definition was copied and pasted and discussed ad nauseum for a few months around this time.

"There must always be room for coincidence, Win had maintained. When there's not, you're probably well into apophenia, each thing then perceived as part of an overarching pattern of conspiracy. And while comforting yourself with the symmetry of it all, he'd believed, you stood all too real a chance of missing the genuine threat, which was invariably less symmetrical, less perfect. But which he always, Cayce knew, took for granted was there."
-William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Apophany may be the proper description for an individual's obsessive, recurring visions of paranormal activity, extraterrestrial clues, or absolute belief in divination methods like numerology. Maybe even softlinking.

One danger in this word is its easy misuse. Apophany is the negatively valenced term for pareidolia or even creativity. We should be careful in its application and skeptical when we hear it. Was Picasso "suffering" from this disease when he saw a bull's head in a bicycle seat? Do we need Prozac to stop us seeing the fun connections between the Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon? Are we nuts when we see the naughty bits in the Rorschach blot? Was Jung deluded when he described acausal synchronicity as fact? (Well, yes, for this last one, but you see my point.)

So when is it appropriate to use? Three things distinguish the affliction from eureka.

  • The inability or unwillingness to attribute the connections to random chance. (Voices in the static.)
  • The incredulousness of the things being connected. (A pillow and Old Scratch.)
  • The frequency with which the connections are found.

What's really happening?

James Alcock, writing for the CSICOP, suggests that sufferers are meeting deep emotional needs by setting up an expectation which heavily influences perception. Small bits of evidence that should be rejected on a rational basis are instead accepted by default, and rationality changed to fit the perceived evidence. This is reinforced when believers listen to each others' stories. I posit that this is why cheerios tend to cluster, because it's easier to believe around other believers than around skeptics, and belief is comforting.

Brugger's research says there is definite brain chemistry at work here, as people with elevated dopamine levels seem to be more susceptible. Given that elevated dopamine is a common stress response, this underscores Alcock's assertion that the altered belief system is meeting some deeper emotional need.

There is no great genius without some touch of madness.
-Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi

  • Leonard, Dirk M.A. and Peter Brugger, Ph.D. "Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation?" Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, 1998, Vol. 11, No. 4 pp. 177-183.