Apophenia — Filling the Blanks

By Maeve Maddox

Readers’ comments on What Does [Sic] Mean? point up the curious feature of the human mind that infuses meaning into the meaningless.

I always thought it was an abbreviation for “Spelling Is Correct.”

I think I read on this site that someone believed “sic” to stand for “said in context”.

I had previously thought it was an acronym for “Spelled InCorrectly”.

This type of fill-in-the-blanks reasoning is at work in elaborate conspiracy theories and when someone sees the face of Jesus in a tortilla.

The tendency to find meaning in the partially-known is called apophenia: finding meaning or patterns where none exist.

Unfamiliar with the source of the notation [sic], readers make use of the letters and the context to create something that makes sense to them.

We all fall into this kind of fallacious reasoning at some time or another. Uncomfortable in a new situation, we hear laughter and are certain that the people are laughing at us. The narrative of the movie A Beautiful Mind revolves around the protagonist’s apophenic beliefs.

For those of us who write fiction, some aspect of apophenia must be at work when we spin whole narratives out of a chance remark or the glimpse of an oddly-dressed person on a train.

The human mind craves meaning. We look at our lives and see a meaningful narrative. We find evidence for beliefs that other people find preposterous.

If you browse the Wikipedia articles that stem from the one on apophenia, you’ll find several types of this kind of thinking.

One type is called Morton’s Demon, named by Glenn R. Morton to explain what was at work in his mind when he believed in a widely-held theory he no longer believes in.

Morton entered the study of physics believing firmly in creationist theory. His study of geology changed his belief. He then gave a name to the type of reasoning that had enabled him to believe in a theory with insufficient physical evidence:

Morton’s demon stands at the gateway of a person’s senses and lets in facts that agree with that person’s beliefs while deflecting those that do not.

With a national election only days away, we’re being hammered with all kinds of assertions about the candidates. It’s probably a good time for voters to watch out for apophenia in their thinking.

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18 Responses to “Apophenia — Filling the Blanks”

  • Liz Remus

    That’s awesome you can even drive inspiration from your reader’s comments. It’s also awesome that my comment was up there as well! Woo hoo! 😛

  • Maeve

    Liz,
    Without you readers, my brain would be a dry well.

  • Ellen

    Fascinating post – you nicely summarized a complex idea. I’m off to find out more about apophenia.

  • Nick

    I love the idea of the word, but it isn’t in Merriam-Webster. Do you have another reference or is it necessary to credit you?

  • Maeve

    Nick,
    I’m not sure how I happened across this word. It is probably in medical dictionaries since it is a psychological term. It’s not in my old OED.I can’t access the online OED at the moment so I don’t know if it is in there.

    It is a cool word and, from what I read in the news, it applies to a lot of current thinking.

  • PreciseEdit

    On humorous note: What happens when a person with echolalia also has in apophenia?

  • PreciseEdit

    er…um…

    On humorous note: What happens when a person with echolalia also has apophenia?

  • richard

    Is it a Greek word originally? The suffix phrenia: is it related to schizophrenia; so, is it connected to some malfuncton of the brain?Maybe I suffer from apophrenia just as I write this comment!!

    Thank you, I enjoy the article

  • Peter

    It’s misspelled (should be apophrenia, as you say, richard, not apophenia), and not a “real” Greek word (attested in ancient texts), but yes: formed on Greek roots, if that’s what you mean.
    (apo = away from; phreno- = mind)

  • Maeve

    Richard and Peter,
    After spending an hour or so in a university library looking unsuccessfully for apophenia in numerous psychology dictionaries, I’ve concluded that the term must be fairly new.

    I did find one print reference to apophenia (so spelled) in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 47, April 2007.

    A Google search for “apophenia” nets 164,000 hits; a search for “apophrenia” gets 103 hits and the question “Did you mean apophenia?”

    I’d be interested in knowing your authority for the spelling “apophrenia.”

  • Peter

    I haven’t seen the word before; I’m just making an assumption. Basis: apo+phrenia has a meaning related to the phenomenon you describe as “Morton’s Demon”: apo- = away from; phrenos = mind. On the other hand -phenia doesn’t have any meaning I know of, and the only possible relation I can find in Liddell-Scott (Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon) is a rare word meaning “slay”. Google turns up this, which seems likely, and someone on the discussion page of the Wikipedia article rather reaching for a derivation from φαινω (but that would result in apophania, not apophenia!)

  • Maeve

    Interesting.
    If it is a misspelling, could be it will, like aluminum, win the day with a large segment of English speakers.

  • Leon

    Robert Rankin has a new title out called “Necrophenia”.
    Could this then be the same case of a dropped ‘R’ or does it simply mean either dead-mind or dead-slay, like slaying the dead or dimwit? Very interesting.

  • Thegreekguy

    The word is apophenia, and Peter, what is a real word anyway? The ancient greek and the modern greek are the same, the only thing that changes is the vocabulary. The word is derived from:

    Απο which can mean -away or -from somewhere or something

    and phenia which is coming from φαινω which can mean to construct or to look similar.

    the greek α+ι sounds like the e in the word phenomenon which is derived from the word φαινω.

    summarizing… the the word apophenia is a genuine greek word with greek roots and means

    to construct (phenia) from something (apo)

  • Jason

    Clearly Peter is a party to the apophenia conspiracy. He is trying to distract us from recognizing the patterns in his posts. With the first two words of the earlier post, “It’s misspelled”, and the last five of his second post, “result in apophania, not apophenia”, we can see his true name.

    The first letters from each word spell out “I’m Riana”. Now you see the depth of the deception. Riana is clearly a woman’s name, where Peter is a man’s, so the only conclusion is that he/she likes to obscure facts about words and names. See the pattern?

  • Nathan

    You have way too much time on your hands, Jason. Thanks for the lesson, Thegreekguy.

  • Allison

    hmm, interesting. the conversationg, concept, everthing. btw, i just googled apophenia and got 183,000 results. explanation? anyway, this is a great term for me to use in my story! hmm…is there any way to erase apophenia in the brain? this could be the cause of a ton of medical diseases! XD

  • Roger Green

    I came across this created word guanophenia, which the writer defined as “a euphemism for the state or condition of being bats### crazy.

    Given the definition of -phenia you so nicely provided, seems like a reasonable neologism.

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