PI, Darren Aronofsky, 1998

Epiphany or Apophenia?

Apophenia has been defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data; that the patterns themselves do not really exist. It is often attributed to high levels of dopamine in the brain and in some cases is seen as symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia. Yet pattern recognition is one, if not the, most critical of skills that a human possesses. As cognitive scientist Nick Chater states:

The cognitive system must cope with a world that is immensely complex but that is, nonetheless, highly patterned. The patterns are crucial. In a completely random world, prediction, explanation, and understanding would be impossible – there would be no patterns on which prediction could be based, to which explanations could refer, or the comprehension of which could amount to understanding. Even more fundamentally, without any patterns relating actions to consequences, there would be no basis to choose one action rather than another. The ability to find patterns in the world is therefore of central importance throughout cognition.[1]

So the idea that our minds subconsciously seek out patterns and connections is not contentious and neither is the idea that we all, to some degree, experience apophenia; we are all capable of making false connections. However, in the main, apophenia is attributed to people who have religious, paranormal and supernatural experiences. They believe in such things as God and UFOs, numerology, astrology, divination, and they see meaning in coincidences. But what makes certain experiences the areas of false connections and pattern recognition and others not? When does pattern recognition go from being a genuine understanding or insight into the nature of reality, to a delusion; from an epiphany to apophenia?

Max Cohen, the main protagonist in Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut film  (Pi: Faith in Chaos), believes that the patterns that exist within nature can be represented by numbers and conversely, the numbers of the stock market represent a pattern; the film centres on Max’s quest to discover this pattern. He is depicted as a brilliant and gifted mathematician and number theorist. Sol, Max’s mentor, considers him to be his greatest pupil, published by 16 and achieving a PhD at 20. However, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Max is also neurotic and paranoid. He displays phobic behaviour, shutting out most of the natural world – both physically and emotionally – and suffers crippling headaches, hallucinations and blackouts for which he heavily self medicates. Aronofsky adeptly sets up Max’s character so that Max can be seen as either a genius or as a psychotic. Clarification as to which he is, is never given and even at the end of the film, when Max perceives himself to be having an epiphany, it is very much left up to the audience to decide what it was that Max was actually experiencing and why. However, the decision is not an easy one to make. Max is a sought after expert in his field and if he says he has discovered the underlying order and structure of the universe then what grounds would we have in claiming that he is wrong?

Arguably one of the deciding factors on whether we perceive Max’s experience as an epiphany or apophenia is on how we view Max’s original assumptions and hypothesis. If we believe that Max’s position is a tenable one, that it is not only possible to discover a pattern in the stock market but that this pattern is also the underlying order and structure of reality, then his epiphany is entirely plausible. If we do not then the decision that he suffered a psychotic episode would become the most plausible. Yet if, as Chater states, pattern recognition is a universal behaviour then whose or which authority do we accept as a guide to help us make a decision? In other words which patterns offer insight on the nature of reality and which do not? It may be felt that only science and scientists have the authority and the wherewithal to offer us the best guidance, but it is not the case that science and scientists have a united voice on such issues. The prevalent scientific worldview is dominated by reductionism, viewing reality as particles in motion and considers that the deeper we go inside the atom the closer we will come to understanding the nature of reality. In part, it is the worldview of scientific materialism that has led to certain patterns that we discern within the world to be relegated to apophenia and under this worldview Max’s experience would be considered as such. As noted by Thomas Kuhn:

Normal science…whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory… seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that do not fit the box are often not seen at all.[2]

Max’s assumptions and hypothesis cannot be accounted for within the reductive scientific paradigm and does not fit the remit of what constitutes ‘normal science’ and, therefore, would be dismissed as untenable.

However, with the advent of chaos theory the scientific climate is changing. Chaos theory, contrary to its name, is about orderliness within dynamical systems; systems that are capable of changing over time. Chaotic dynamical systems are non-linear which means that unlike linear systems where the output is proportional to the input, in non-linear systems the output is disproportional; it can either be more or less. This means that slight changes to the system – its initial conditions – can have dramatic effects to its overall progression. This sensitivity to initial conditions ensures that their futures are unpredictable. One of the features of chaotic systems is that they appear disorderly and random. Nevertheless, the overall behaviour of the systems or the patterning that they follow can be known and it is because of this that chaos theory is also known as deterministic chaos. Chaos theory, therefore, concerns itself with understanding the universal behaviour, patterning and hidden order of these systems and chaos theorists examine the data that has hitherto been considered random and meaningless.

Under this scientific worldview Max’s hypothesis is a cogent one. Chaos theorists have already established that trends in the stock markets can be assessed so that the patterning, or overall behaviour of the stock market, is taken into account when attempting to predict fluctuations. The world is seemingly filled with chaotic dynamical systems, systems that follow patterns, and chaos theory has already established itself in disciplines such as biology, geology, economics, psychology, population dynamics, robotics, meteorology,  and politics, to name but a few. As more disciplines become aware of the validity of chaos theory the more widespread its use is becoming.

The patterns that chaotic dynamical systems form or make – by following strange attractors – are called fractals. Fractals are phenomena which are self similar. Their basic structure is formulated by a self repeating pattern which increases exponentially, dominated by a power law and displaying symmetry across scale. Whether you zoom in or out on a particular fractal the patterning is consistent. For example, if you zoomed in on a branch of a tree, you would not be able to distinguish if it was a branch, a tree or a twig. Only by including background information are you able to differentiate. In the same way, you can only appreciate that you are examining an atom and not a galaxy by taking into consideration the context of your investigatory process.

Just what pattern recognitions this new science validates remains to be seen and undoubtedly not all that is considered as being apophenia now will become justified. However, it is interesting to note that if an atom and a galaxy follow a similar pattern then how far-fetched is the notion that astrological charts can depict the pattern of an individual’s life? If the axiom held by many ancient traditions “as above so below” is shown to be a truism, as fractals would seem to suggest, then how many of our sacrosanct scientific and philosophical premises would need to be revised? How many theories, such as those of Heraclitus and Leibniz, will need to be taken back down off the shelves, brushed off and looked at again in a new light? We’ll see.

Maria Taylor


[1] Nick Chater, ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) pp. 273-302 (p.273)

[2] Kuhn, structure of scientific revolution p.24


Chater, N., ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) 273-302

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edn.,(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)


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