Reality Check

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11-11-11, Apophenia, and the Meaning of Life

Is that what it looks like it is?

So, what were you doing at 11:11 on 11-11-11?  Was it special, significant, and meaningful? If it seemed that way because of the pattern on your digital watch, you were experiencing apophenia. Or maybe not...

Apophenia is an error of perception: The tendency to interpret random patterns as meaningful. It can manifest itself in many different ways. Did someone say something in Hindi—meaningless sounds to a non-Hindi speaker--that sounded like English? (There are some hilarious videos on YouTube with English subtitles for Bollywood hits. Benny Lava, for example, or the Indian Nipple Song. Lip reading without audio, for example, can result in Bad Lip Reading.)  Pareidolia is visual apophenia. An example would be seeing the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich, the Virgin Mary in a water stain on the subway wall, the Man in the Moon, or faces in the clouds. 50 Things that Look Like Faces are also good examples.  When a photo of the WTC Twin Towers makes you assign special significance to "11," that's pareidolia. When something indistinct in the sky is interpreted as an extraterrestrial spacecraft, that's also paredolia.

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Apophenia results from the evolution of human cognition: The ability to spot and recognize patterns-patterns that represent things to eat, things to avoid, or things with which to try and reproduce-is an adaptation with positive feedback for survival.  Birds do it, bees do it, even uneducated fleas do it. Plants do it.  Even one-celled microorganisms do it.  In fact, pattern recognition is the way viruses work and the ability to "do" it extends to inorganic compounds and atoms. Computers can be trained to do it.  Pattern recognition is what a computer does the moment you login with a userid.  Higher tech versions include digitally processed recognition of speech, faces, and even such individual and intimate traits as patterns in irises and fingerprints.  However, apophenia is not just recognizing patterns.  It's interpreting patterns in meaningless data as if it were meaningful.

For our hominid ancestors, pattern recognition was essential for recognizing both food and predators.  Is that waving savannah grass the wind or a leopard?  Is that serpentine thing on the path a root or a snake?  Recognizing patterns meant the difference between life and death, but it was also a liability. Have you ever jumped when you thought the scratching on your neck was a spider when it was actually a leaf? Did your heart ever race thinking that the knocking a radiator was a rapist or a ghost?  Erroneous pattern recognition can scare the bejeezus out of you.  Edgar Allen Poe knew that, and wrote about it in "The Tell-Tale Heart." What was that sound, anyway? There are good reasons to take risks in mistakenly interpreting meaningless patterns.  Could that lump be cancerous? Is that funny-shaped mole melanoma?  Better safe than sorry.  However, too many errors can create hypochondriacs. Misdiagnoses can also be dangerous. Life is full of risks and we can't avoid them all, nor should we.

Although all living things recognize patterns, humans may be the only ones to assign symbolic meaning-sometimes deeply nuanced or with powerful emotional content-to those patterns. Anthropologist Leslie White suggested that the tendency to create symbols is actually what makes us human. Religious symbols, intentional or not, are recognized in crosses, stars, or even lighted glories that appear around a spectacular sunset.  Omens are symbols, as are patterns in the entrails of birds, tea leaves, crystal balls, birth charts, Tarot cards, and I Ching hexagrams.  All of these evoke connections, sometimes pulling them from the hazy subconscious or even deep recesses of unconscious memory.  Music and especially smells do this.  It's what makes us feel nostalgia. However, when those connections are spurious and erroneous, that's apophenia.

Apophenia is a normal human experience.  It's not usually pathological but can become so in schizophrenia, when pattern recognition and interpretation run wild.  A famous example is that of the brilliant MIT physicist John Nash, featured in the film "A Beautiful Mind," whose preoccupation with "meaningful" patterns became disabling. When the noises in the air conditioner are interpreted as voices telling you to do bad things, it's time seek some help.

Apophenia and pareidolia can be a boon to artists, whether visual or musical, when visual stimuli result in inspiration: Shadows suggest a nude.  A birdsong can inspire a melody or machinery a composition by Philip Glass. Apophenia is helps us to appreciate puns and clever turns of phrase. His playing with pareidolia is what makes some of Salvador Dali's paintings so magical.

On 11-11-11, it's the apophenia of numerology that's relevant. Humans both love and fear patterns in numbers, whether it's lucky 7s and 11s or dangerous 13s and an evil 666. Some patterns in numbers, such as those in diagnostic medical tests or bank statements, are highly meaningful. Others may look meaningful but they're not. Numerology is a form of apophenia in which numbers and patterns of numbers are considered to be meaningful when they're not.  It's similar to astrology, which identifies meaningful patterns in the apparent movements of celestial bodies relative to the Earth.

The 11-11-11 obsession is a form of apophenia that results in part from digital technology.  A hundred years ago, clocks had circular, analog dials and date notation tended to use Roman numerals: "XI xi 11," for example. (If we were still using Roman numerals, many would associate thirty with porn!)  Like clothing and hair styles, date notation styles change, too.  A hundred years from now, on what may or may not still be remembered as November 11, 2111, the most common way to write eleven in the U.S. and Europe may well be a Chinese character for that number, which itself will undoubtedly carry with it a wealth of ancient numerological associations currently outside of most Western consciousness.  It will probably the object of apophenia, too.

It's the constant, changing interpretations of patterns that makes human experience so fascinating. In fact, pattern recognition and interpretation is fundamental to human existence.  Before one can ask "What is the meaning of life?" one must first answer, "IS there a meaning of life?" Is the human condition just a serious case of apophenia? Pondering that one will keep us busy for a while.

 

John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas whose principal focus is archaeology with a special emphasis on Costa Rica.

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