What is Apophenia?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

When someone sees patterns which do not really exist, this is known as apophenia. Apophenia can take a wide range of forms, from thinking that the same number turns up too often to be mere coincidence to seeing a man in the moon. In some cases, apophenia is used as a criteria for the diagnosis of mental illness, but having apophenia does not necessarily imply that someone is mentally ill; many extremely creative people, for example, have demonstrated apophenia.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

One of the most common forms of apophenia involves numbers. Many people are under the impression that a particular number keeps appearing in their lives; 23 is a common choice. They may start seeing that particular number everywhere, either in pure form or in the form of numbers which add up to it. This type of apophenia has often been the subject of films and books which involve cursed numbers.

In another form of apophenia called pareidolia, people pull shapes or sounds out of meaningless data. The most well known example of pareidolia is probably cloud-gazing, in which people see shapes in the forms of clouds in the sky. Many people also exhibit pareidolia when they pull meaningful sounds from static in the radio, and it can sometimes be extremely frustrating, as other people will not recognize those sounds or patterns.

Apophenia is an example of what is known in statistics as a type I error, or a false positive. Most people do not exhibit apophenia by conscious choice; they simply draw connections where there are none out of a sense of false sensitivity. The behavior of someone with severe apophenia can veer into the absurd, as someone may go to elaborate lengths to support the connections he or she makes, or to avoid particular circumstances.

Learning to recognize apophenia is important, as it is a good idea to be able to distinguish between true patterns and mere coincidence. This distinction is especially crucial in the sciences, where type I errors can radically skew experiment results, especially when people make subtle adjustments to reinforce their ideas. As a general rule, if you keep noticing the same number, symbol, pattern, sound, or event in your life, it is probably a case of apophenia; you might want to seek out evidence which contradicts your impression of a pattern or connection.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I'll gladly accept this diagnosis instead of the one the doctor gave me!


I have just been enlightened by this article. Not only does it define apophenia, but it also briefly describes another form called pareidolia, which in my case, is a condition I've had since childhood.

I'm so excited to finally discover that it has a name and that I'm not alone when I perceive faces from inanimate objects. This occurs with me most often when I'm staring at the tile usually on the bathroom floor. Or even on the wallpaper or textured paint in a restaurant.

Every time this happens to me I get this strange sensation that it has some higher meaning to it like I'm supposed to start drawing the shape of it or something.

I've never told anyone about this condition before, that is until now. It hasn't ever posed a threat to me or anyone else and I've always managed to function in my daily life as normal as anyone else. It's just a vision, nothing more. Thank you for this article. I now have a sense of peace over these facial visions.


very nice.


I just wanted to say that this article was well written and informative.


Yes, but did anyone notice there are 387 words in this post? Now THAT'S significant!

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