Suppose your friend tells you about a recent UFO sighting in your area. That night you notice an unusual slow-moving light in the sky. Ordinarily, you’d dismiss it as a human aircraft, but tonight you wonder if it’s extraterrestrial. A week later you discover an odd, circular patch of dead grass in your yard — shaped something like a “flying saucer.” The next night you swear you hear strange humming noises outside and soft “alien-like” footsteps below your bedroom window. More and more, these events seem linked to UFOs.

Experts call this apophenia, and, simply put, it’s the human tendency to make connections or see patterns where none exist.

Why does this happen?

Humans are wired to spot patterns in our environment. Our ancestors used this skill to glean information about the seasons, animal migrations, weather phenomena and the location of natural resources that helped them survive.

Unfortunately, our pattern-recognition machinery sometimes turns up connections that aren’t there. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that we’d occasionally get it wrong. After all, it’s better that our minds continually detect clues (even random or unrelated clues) than fail to see them altogether. Not recognizing where predators typically hide, for example, can get you eaten. So periodic “false positives” are the price we pay for security, an unfortunate but necessary by-product of our need to survive and find meaning in a chaotic world.

Seeing dangerous predators helped our ancestors survive Connecting the dots about where dangerous predators hide and learning to spot them helped our ancestors survive. (Photo: Jonathan P/flickr)

Examples of apophenia

Our brain’s ability to discern meaningful patterns has continued to be an important survival skill in the modern world. And thankfully, most of our false positives are relatively harmless. For example, there’s a type of apophenia called pareidolia, which is when you spy a lamb in the clouds or an old man in the moon or the face of Jesus on a piece of toast.

Of course, glimpsing nonexistent patterns can also lead you down a dark path. One example is latching onto supernatural or magical explanations for phenomena that don’t seem explainable via science, terrifying yourself and others.

Then there’s the gambler’s fallacy — the belief that if something happens a lot then things will soon balance out so it happens less. Or vice versa. Take a coin toss. If you get five heads in a row, you may believe you’re more likely to get tails next time. But your chance of getting heads (using a fair coin) is exactly the same each time — 50/50.

Or how about the “hot hand fallacy,” the tendency to believe that previous success means you’re on a roll? This type of cognitive misfire is especially dangerous if you believe your good luck at the roulette wheel or picking stocks means you can’t lose in the future.

In science, apophenia may cause researchers seeking a big discovery to glom onto evidence of order that doesn't exist or to ignore findings that don’t support their hypothesis. According to one study, 24-40 percent of published research on strategic management might not reach the same conclusions if repeated. The peril lies in trumpeting results that aren’t true — for instance, that a new drug eradicates cancer or that vaccines cause autism. The result may be that you choose to undergo an ineffective treatment instead of opting for something proven or shun preventive therapies that could save lives later on.

A related tendency is noticing selective facts and concocting an entire belief system. For example, someone may think a three-week cold spell means global warming isn’t real, or begin trafficking in conspiracy theories, which can range from the fairly benign claim that Elvis faked his own death to delusional Holocaust denial.

pareidolia is a type of apophenia. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia that causes us to see faces in rocks, shapes in the clouds and George Washington’s image on a grilled cheese sandwich. (Photo: Joshua Tree National Park/flickr)

What science says about apophenia

Psychological research suggests that people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to see patterns in random designs and find significance in coincidence.

Other research indicates that apophenia may also be related to over-activation of the brain’s right hemisphere (the seat of creativity and artistic senses), and may be more common in people with higher dopamine levels, a brain chemical that stimulates you to seek out pleasurable activities, improves memory, boosts motivation and helps you focus.

Is apophenia ever good?

Uncovering patterns that others don’t see may be more common in those suffering from mental illness, but it doesn’t always stoke dangerous delusional thinking. This brain “glitch” might also be the fuel behind creativity, imagination and visionary flights of fancy. Think of a poet’s whimsical metaphors or artistic symbolism in a painting. Or how about epiphanies, which bring sudden intuitive insights about the world’s interconnectedness? As many have long believed, mental illness and creativity really do seem to share a common brain pathway.

Do the patterns that creative types and dreamers see really exist? Maybe only for them, at least initially, but when shared with others, they often provide new perceptions, usher in scientific discoveries and bring greater wisdom. Apophenia only treads on precarious ground when we pick and choose the patterns we notice and fail to connect all the dots, or act out destructively based on our perceptions.

How to avoid self-deception

You’re more likely to “stumble upon” counterproductive non-existent patterns when you wish something were true or it serves a narrative you want to tell — like you’re on a lucky streak or your favorite celebrity didn’t die or the research theory you staked your career on isn’t wrong. Connecting all the dots requires keeping an open mind, looking at something from all sides and being willing to accept new information or evidence as it comes along. A little skeptical scrutiny and broad-mindedness goes a long way in keeping apophenia out of the danger zone.