Apophenia is seeing patterns in randomness, which may be the mechanism behind conspiracy theory generation. If it feels to me like a set of random events are connected and no one is talking about the connection, then conspiracy must be afoot (Poulsen, 2012). Psychiatrist Klaus Conrad is credited with coining this term in 1958 to describe the descent into psychosis, “Borrowing from ancient Greek, the artificial term ‘apophany’ describes this process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field, eg, being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers” (as cited in Mishara, 2010).
But this isn’t a post about conspiracy theories or psychosis.
While conspiracy theories and psychosis take our ability to see patterns to whole other level, seeing patterns in randomness is just how our brains work.
The visual version of apophenia is pareidolia. Have you ever seen a rabbit in a cloud formation? That’s pareidolia. Have you seen a face in a piece of toast? Also pareidolia.
After covering the cerebral cortex, tell students that there is an area in the temporal lobe that is especially good at detecting faces: the fusiform face area (FFA).
Show students these 20 objects where faces appear. Ask students to guess whether they think that seeing these objects would cause the FFA to be activated. How could that hypothesis be tested? Give students a minute to think about it, a minute to share with a partner, and then ask for volunteers for their suggestions. This would be a nice time to review independent variables and dependent variables. When you’re ready, tell students that researchers compared such face objects with everyday no-face objects, and found that face-objects activated the FFA (Hadjikhani, Kveraga, Naik, & Ahlfors, 2009).
If time allows, describe prosopagnosia (pro-soap-ag-nose-ee-ya; face-blindness). Do students think that the FFA would be activated when people with congenital prosopagnosia look at faces? Why or why not? The FFA is activated, but it doesn’t show habituation. When people without prosopagnosia are shown faces a second time, the FFA shows decreased activation; “Not interesting; I’ve seen this before.” For those with prosopagnosia, the activation is just as great the second time around; “Hey, this is new!” (Avidan, Hasson, Malach, & Behrmann, 2005).
Again if time allows, do students think the FFA would be activated in people with autism. Why or why not? For the participants in the study, the severity of their autism varied. For those who had impaired face recognition (about half of their sample, 14 out of 27) , the activation of their FFA was weaker.
For 30 years, researchers have debated whether the FFA is face-specific or whether it is for detecting any complex pattern we’re expert in (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Some recent research has found that the FFA is active when expert chess players look at positions of chess pieces, positions taken from actual gameplay, but not a specific chess piece (Bilalic, 2016). And researchers have also compared expert radiologists with beginner medical students. When the experts looked at X-rays, their FFAs were active (Bilalic, Grottenthaler, Nagele, & Lindig, 2016).
While the jury is still out on whether the FFA is face-specific or not, this is a wonderful example of science in action. Researchers describe a finding. All researchers start thinking about what might be the cause of that finding, and they start devising experiments to test their hypothesized causes.
Avidan, G., Hasson, U., Malach, R., & Behrmann, M. (2005). Detailed exploration of face-related processing in congenital prosopagnosia: 2. Functional neuroimaging findings. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(7), 1130–1149. https://doi.org/10.1162/0898929054475154
Bilalic, M. (2016). Revisiting the role of the fusiform face area in expertise. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(9), 1345–1357. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn
Bilalic, M., Grottenthaler, T., Nagele, T., & Lindig, T. (2016). The faces in radiological images: Fusiform face area supports radiological expertise. Cerebral Cortex, 26(3), 1004–1014. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhu272
Hadjikhani, N., Kveraga, K., Naik, P., & Ahlfors, S. P. (2009). Early (N170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects. Neuroreport, 20(4), 403–407. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNR.0b013e328325a8e1
Kanwisher, N., & Yovel, G. (2006). The fusiform face area: a cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2109–2128. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2006.1934
Mishara, A. L. (2010). Klaus Conrad (1905-1961): Delusional mood, psychosis, and beginning schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36(1), 9–13. https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbp144
Poulsen, B. (2012). Being amused by apophenia. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being-amused-apophenia