Apophenia as Delusion
Reed Berkowitz’s piece, A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon, insightfully noted how Apophenia drives people into the Cult of QAnon. Jake Angeli, a.k.a. the QAnon Shaman, it has been pointed out, “displays strong aspects of what psychologists call ‘patternicity,’ which is to see hidden patterns, meanings, and agency behind what others would see as random events.”
The job of clever people is to ask difficult questions. The job of very clever people is to ask deceptively simple ones.Anonymous
The deceptively simple question is: is apophenia a certain road to ruin?
Apophenia as neurology we can make hay from
Perception is not a passive activity, it is an active one. Our expectations interfere with our perception. This can have disastrous outcomes, for instance, it can have radiologists miss a literal gorilla on an MRI because it didn’t match their expectations of what they should perceive.
If our expectations are negative, for instance, if we allow a victim narrative to drive our thoughts, we’ll start seeing our own victimhood everywhere, because— and this is specifically the role of our brain’s Reticular Activating System— you get more of whatever you think about.
If that’s starting to sound like woo to you, have a gander at the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer, Jr, over at the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.
We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive. Don’t go looking for evidence in support of your darkest thoughts, for you will certainly find it.
Expect conspiracies? You’ll find them.
Everything has both light and shadow. By now I’ve primed you to consider the light side of apophenia.
An anthropology professor told me that in some cultures people like to play a game called, “what if everything is a message for you?” It’s a useful game because it promotes regular reflection and introspection. I also like it because when seen in this way it is irrelevant whether divine forces really are trying to talk to us or not; it’s just a healthy habit to adopt.
Relevant here is the reticular activating system: the part of the brain whose job it is to distinguish relevant input from the mass of sensory data that we receive constantly. It’s the part of the brain that sees Volkswagen Jettas everywhere immediately after you purchase one, or wakes mom up from the slightest whimper of her infant two rooms over while otherwise sleeping soundly in an urban environment. The reticular activating system naturally likes to play this game and makes you excellent at it (though it’s not as good at sniffing out metaphors). Let me get you started with examples:
- Toilet clogged? Where are you having trouble eliminating shit from your life?
- Joint problems? Where are you inflexible?
- Throat trouble? How are you at speaking up for yourself?
Whenever I play this game I always seem to find a pertinent message, and it always seems to be exactly what I’m dealing with that day… and I get a kick out of the spookiness out of it!
ESP, Synchronicities, and Signs
If the first side of apophenia is delusion, and the second is basic neurology (that we can hack to our advantage), the third side is the strangest of all: signs, synchronicities, and ESP.
Of all these, the one I’m most familiar with is ESP, or Remote Viewing. Remote Viewing is a term coined during the U.S. government’s Project Stargate, their 25-year investigation into psychic spying.
Late in his life, Upton Sinclair experimented with ESP (mental telepathy) and published his results in the book Mental Radio.
In the 90s I tried it out myself. Here are a couple of examples:
The reality of ESP has been validated statistically. I bet you didn’t know that, because the scientific community is full of human beings with all the same flaws and biases as everyone else, and if you find yourself resistant to a notion so out there it may topple the foundations of scientific materialism itself, you can bet they are too.
ESP doesn’t just show up when you’re trying to use it, it shows up even when you think you’re doing nothing, like listening to the radio, watching tv, driving the car, or asleep. To the die hard skeptic, every single instance of one thing indicating another future thing—without any conventional explanation— is apophenia. Those die hard skeptics are in denial.
If you’ve made it this far, you may be willing to accept at least the possibility that ESP is real. But what’s the mechanism? What if the mechanism is consciousness itself? And what if consciousness isn’t, as materialists would have you believe, a happy accident of biology, but rather a fundamental aspect of the universe itself? And if that’s true, what other ways might consciousness over here be trying to communicate with consciousness over there?
My father passed away in 2001, and my mother passed away in 2016. In both cases, I had freakishly improbable experiences with birds. With my dad, it had to do with a pileated woodpecker… my step mother shared with me that he told her he wanted to see one before he passed (that’s not the freakish part, which I’m leaving out of the story for now, it’s just to say that pileated woodpeckers mattered to him right before he died, then showed up for me in a circumstance on the one year anniversary of his passing so strange that it stretches plausibility to chalk it up to the RAS). With my mother, she and I had a long and meaningful conversation about crows just days before she passed, and the day after she passed I, along with two of my brothers, witnessed crows behaving in ways none of us have ever seen before or since and were I to expand on both stories, you would be hard-pressed to not see deep significance in them.
The clever reader might next ask: why should I take your signs as meaningful while you expect me to take Jake Angeli’s signs as delusional?
Apophenia has as its opposite randomania, which is “when you actually do experience a revelation but you confuse it for delusion, or when a pattern does exist but you fail to notice it [or you notice it but deny it any significance].”
If I haven’t lost you yet then you know the obvious challenge is how to tell the difference (distinguishing signal from noise is part of the Controlled Remote Viewing protocol). In the case of Jake Angeli reposting a cloud that even a reasonable person would say resembles a sniper, the problem isn’t that the resemblance was there, the problem was that to Jake, it mattered.
Our brains are wired to see what we expect to see. Expect victimhood and you’ll see it. Expect, in conspiritualist fashion, that God wants you to overthrow the greatest democracy in the history of the planet on his behalf and you’ll see that.
If you’re seeing patterns, especially on social media, that promote paranoia, conspiracy, and aggression, it’s more likely you’re engaging in motivated reasoning fueled by a right-hemispheric amygdala on overdrive than receiving divine guidance. Introspect on your paranoia and seek professional help.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.