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Metaphysics & Psychology

Apophenia: why people “animate” inanimate objects

Apophenia: why people "animate" inanimate objects 1

The phenomenon, which is called apophenia – from the Greek “I make it explicit”, otherwise also called “false realization”. This term was proposed by the German scientist Klaus Konrad in 1958. He described the acute stage of schizophrenia, during which unrelated details of the surrounding reality and their perception are united in the patient’s mind by strange common signs and meanings, which, as Konrad believed, are born only in a diseased brain.

However, numerous studies of scientists have given grounds to put forward a theory that apophenia is also characteristic of completely healthy people, and very many – almost all of us. In 2001, Swiss psychologist Peter Brugger coined the term into English with a paper on ghosts and poltergeists. Apophenia, he said, was at all times a feature of human knowledge. For example, a child hears a rustle in the grass – and believes that there is a tiger hiding there, which will jump out of the darkness at him. A few minutes later, the baby sees the outline of a tiger in a curved tree trunk. By the way, the faces of strange creatures, so similar to human ones, which we try to make out on the visible side of the moon on a clear night, are also “false realization”, that is, apophenia.

Apophenia can put a person in an awkward situation – for example, if a superstitious friend refuses to go to a party with the company on Friday the 13th, believing that trouble cannot be avoided. And if on this day he accidentally spills water, scatters salt or stumbles out of the blue, fear of inevitable disaster will drive him crazy. 

Literally. Virginia Woolf, a well-known author and manic-depressive person, once heard birds chirping in her garden and claimed that they were singing in Greek. Another example is the painting by Salvador Dali “The slave market with the disappearing bust of Voltaire” – the truth here is an illusion created on purpose.

The gambler thinks that he sees a logical system in the chaotic movement of chips. The coffee grounds make us gaze intently into the cup and look at the bottom for hints of what awaits us. The child sees the glint of headlights sliding along the wall of his bedroom, and thinks that this is a message from aliens and begins to believe that UFOs exist. Do you see a cross or a fluffy sheep in the clouds floating in the sky? Beware – you are at risk, do not let apophenia take over and control your consciousness.

The second side of the coin

The dual essence of apophenia is that this feature of human consciousness can both underlie adaptive behavior and encourage flights of fantasy, and cause all kinds of superstition and even paranoia. In 2001, scientists at the Institute for Brain Research in Zurich stated that “a hyperassociative cognitive impulse supports belief in magical or psychic phenomena and stimulates divergent thinking”, which is the foundation of creativity.

Scientists who consider apophenia as a stimulus for the development of mankind, a way of knowing the world and its development, cite as an example the words of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who told his students: “Look at the walls covered with many spots, and imagine some kind of scene, you will see in it resembles landscapes decorated with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills of all kinds, strange faces, costumes and an infinity of things that you can reduce to separate and complex forms. “

However, psychologists continue to scrutinize the link between apophenia and mental illness. Their patients are not just poets and suggestible fans of witchcraft, Bigfoot or magical aura, who tend to find signals in any surrounding objects and events. These are men and women with schizophrenia and possibly bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scientists’ opinions

Researchers from University College London have found some evidence that people of this psychotype tend to see so-called patterns, that is, image patterns, in random configurations and meaning in random events. In one study, adult participants were divided into groups based on their personality scores on a psychotype scale, which measures a predisposition to psychosis. The volunteers watched the animation of two figures moving across the screen. In some cases, the shapes moved independently of each other, while in others they collided and triggered a chain of events. The subjects with a special type of nervous activity claimed a connection between the movement of the two figures, while the participants in the group who were less inclined to fantasies did not see such a connection.

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In another experiment, people who scored high on the delusional thinking test attributed mental qualities to triangles randomly floating around the screen. They argued that one triangle “saw” the other, which is why it “ran away” or “crept” closer to explore. Peter Brugger and his colleagues have suggested that apophenia may be the result of excessive activity in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Scientists have named dopamine, the hormone of motivation and joy, as another possible “culprit” of apophenia. An experiment in 2002 showed that people with high dopamine levels are more likely to see logic in coincidence than people with lower dopamine levels. Scientists artificially raised dopamine levels in a control group of volunteers – and they began to see non-random chains in disparate events.

Rather than simply viewing apophenia as a kind of adverse side effect of cognitive “architecture,” Massachusetts psychoanalyst Kelly Adler suggests seeing meaning where it’s not obvious. He argues that apophenia often becomes a powerful creative stimulus, and the result is brilliant works of art and scientific discoveries.

American writer Christopher Moore said:

“In some cases, mild apophenia is a writer’s secret weapon that brings pleasure to readers and literary success to the author. We spend our working days observing the spontaneous connections between unrelated events, people and lives and putting meaning into those connections.”

Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Utah in the United States, believes that the human brain is an apparatus for identifying patterns that connect different points and allow us to identify meaningful connections between the many sensory inputs that we encounter: understanding we would not be able to make predictions about survival and reproduction. The natural and interpersonal world around us would be too chaotic.”


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