Apophenia: Does Everything Happen For a Reason?

 a person eating a bowl of alphabet soup, with the letters in their spoon spelling out the word yes. The soup shows the person's reflection as well.

Verywell / Dennis Madamba

Apophenia is a term used to describe the human behavior of finding meaning in instances where no such meaning exists. Another term for apophenia is patternicity. To some extent, all humans exhibit this behavior at times, and you can be a healthy, stable person who engages in apophenia. At the same time, extreme cases of apophenia are associated with psychotic states, and apophenia is sometimes a symptom of schizophrenia.

Let’s take a deeper look at apophenia, including how it manifests, what causes it, what its links are to mental illness, and what to do if you or a loved one is experiencing it.

What Does It Mean If You Have Apophenia?

The term apophenia is attributed to German neurologist Klaus Conrad who was describing a typical symptom of psychosis, where people in that state tend to find patterns in meaning when they don’t exist. Apophenia is thought to be a feature common to psychotic states where hallucinations and delusions occur.

But even though the concept of apophenia began as a way to describe a psychotic state, it is also a feature that occurs regularly in non-psychotic people. In our search for meaning and connection, many of us look for patterns where none exist or come to conclusions about what something means when we don’t have our facts quite clear.

The idea that certain occurrences and phenomena that don’t have a clear reason behind them can make us uncomfortable, and many of us find comfort in assigning meaning to these things so the world makes a little more sense.

What Is an Example of Apophenia?

Anytime you make connections that don’t exist, find patterns where there are none, or assign meaning without clear evidence, you may be engaging in apophenia.

Some common examples of apophenia include:

  • Hearing random sounds and believing you know what was said, such as feeling like your name was being called
  • Seeing pictures of animals or other figures in the clouds
  • Believing in “signs” from the universe, good luck charms, psychics, or astrology

Is Apophenia a Mental Disorder?

Apophenia is not a mental disorder, though it can potentially be a symptom of one. Again, we all experience moments of apophenia from time to time. It’s human nature to search to make connections and “connect the dots.” It’s a common tendency to engage in “magical thinking” from time to time because this type of thinking helps create order in a world that can often feel out of order.

When apophenia becomes extreme, it may be a sign of psychosis. Psychosis is a mental state characterized by losing touch with reality. Psychosis is a symptom of several different mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, severe depression, and schizophrenia.

Apophenia is most closely associated with schizophrenia, which is a mental illness characterized by being detached from reality and experiencing delusions and hallucinations.

Causes of Apophenia

When apophenia is associated with psychosis, it may be caused by a mental illness like bipolar disorder, clinical depression, or schizophrenia. Psychosis is also sometimes a symptom of a health condition like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or other types of dementia. In rare cases, extreme sleep deprivation can cause symptoms of psychosis. Psychosis can also be caused by the misuse and mixing of drugs and alcohol, as well as by certain prescription medications.

In otherwise healthy people, apophenia may be caused by the following:

  • An increased desire to find patterns and meaning tied to a need to make sense of the world around you
  • Some research has found that apophenia may have historically given humans an evolutionary advantage
  • Certain personality types may be more likely to engage in apophenia, such as those with a personality characterized by a greater degree of “openness”
  • Apophenia may also be tied to a human desire to prefer more positive outcomes or results and viewing a lack of clear or obvious meaning as more negative
  • The concept of “gambler’s fallacy” may come into play here; this is the idea that patterns seen in previous events will affect future events

What's The Difference Between Apophenia And Pareidolia?

Pareidolia is a concept related to apophenia, in that it involves finding meaning where there is no meaning. But pareidolia is when you find meaning in visual representations. It's most closely associated with faces, such as when people seem to see faces where there are none.

Examples of facial pareidolia include seeing Jesus in a potato chip or thinking the Virgin Mary is depicted in a grilled cheese sandwich. Like apophenia, pareidolia is frequently associated with schizophrenia.

Can Apophenia Lead to Schizophrenia?

Remember, some amount of apophenia is normal. There’s not much research about whether it can lead to schizophrenia and under what circumstances. One older study found that having greater tendencies toward apophenia may make you more vulnerable to developing schizophrenia in the future.

2020 research indicates apophenia may be a risk factor for psychotic disorders, which can include schizophrenia.

How to Cope With Apophenia

If you enjoy engaging in some forms of apophenia, such as reading your horoscope, or looking for shapes in the clouds, there is usually nothing to be concerned about. If you have any concerns about your desire to find meaning or patterns, or if you are concerned about a loved one’s apophenia tendencies, please reach out to a mental health professional.

The greatest concern with apophenia is that it can be a symptom of unfolding psychosis. Signs of psychosis may include:

  • False beliefs, such as believing that people on the internet or TV are trying to send you a hidden message
  • Hallucinations, which means seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
  • Paranoia
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Having strange, nonsensical ideas
  • Not taking care of oneself or engaging in personal hygiene
  • Extreme changes in sleep patterns
  • Having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality
  • Difficulty communicating, changes in speech patterns
  • Inability to function in everyday life
  • Trouble attending work or school

If you or a loved one has any of these signs, it’s important to seek mental health care as soon as possible. Psychosis is treatable, but if it's not treated, it can become dangerous. People with psychosis may become a danger to themselves or others.

Treatment for psychosis usually involves a combination of therapy and antipsychotic mediation. Help is out there, and you deserve to feel more like yourself again.

If you or a loved one are struggling with psychosis, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.