I have an innate love of words so I am particularly excited when I find a new one, that is, new to me, and I have a chance to savor it. I am not speaking of the words our world creates for new products or services. There is something a bit false about them. What I do refer to are words that exist and I never have met them.
In today’s TIMES there was a gem, “apophenia”. I know it looks like a fatal disease or a monster to be avoided, but it is actually a useful word that means “the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not there.” I was gleeful as I read about it. It is so real.
By now most of us have heard the anecdote of the woman in her New York kitchen at the time of the Great Blackout of the sixties who plugged in her toaster and who saw, from her kitchen window, that all Manhattan had gone dark. She had caused it! That’s apophenia.
Because we fear living in a pointless world we are all busy finding connections or, as we might put it, reasons for things. That is what fuels the “End of the Worlders” in the subway stations. They know that the volcanoes in Iceland, the wild weather in much of the USA and the final judgment are all connected. Just this morning one of them yodeled to me, “The end is near; have you fear?” I didn’t have time to stop and discuss it with her because I saw that she already had a list of her talking points ready. I’m sure she’s wrong. I button my coat against the inclement weather, but I don’t see it as part of the Final Judgment. She obviously has another view.
Does our love of apophenia also come from our own egotism, our need to have the world revolve around us? At heart, I think that is at stake here too. There is some kind of power in thinking we made something happen. We are then more in control because we are causing things, not being victims.
Apophenia lies behind conspiracy theories, some of the much-touted cures for cancer or can’t fail diet suggestions. My advice is to take all these with a grain of salt too. Some of the wonder in our world is wonder at what we do not understand and cannot connect. It is all right to live in a random world, isn’t it?
So, apophenists, sit back and rest!