Thursday, October 29, 2009

New word delight

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a word I hadn't ever heard before: apophenia.

I'm an inveterate reader and get excited beyond what might be considered logical when I run across a word I haven't heard before. In fact, I'm so word oriented, that I asked for years for the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary as a Christmas gift. You're reading this and saying, "Okay, we all have a dictionary in the house. Nothing special." This version is HUGE. I whipped out my tape measure to give dimensions - it is over 20 inches tall, and close to 8 inches thick. To put that into perspective, it is taller and about as wide as your basic hard drive tower (the older versions). I have it on a library stand in my office and rarely walk past it on any given day without spending some enjoyable minutes paging through and devouring words, meaning, history, etc.

So, apophenia - the Wikipedia explantion of this is as follows:

Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad,[1] who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness".

Conrad originally described this phenomenon in relation to the distortion of reality present in psychosis, but it has become more widely used to describe this tendency in healthy individuals without necessarily implying the presence of neurological differences or mental illness.

In the case of autistic spectrum disorders, including Asperger syndrome and individuals who are autistic savants, individuals may in fact be aware of patterns (such as those present in complex systems, large numbers, music, etc) that are infrequently noticed by neurotypical people. Rather than being aware of patterns that do not exist, autistic individuals may be aware of meaningful patterns within situations that appear meaningless to others. Indeed, in some philosophies (e.g. existentialism), meaning is something subjective, unique to each person, that must be achieved. What, then, is 'abnormal' meaning? [2]

After reading through the full Wiki page on this word, I sat back to ponder. Conrad applied this word to the phenomenon of recognizing patterns and connections. He was studying what are looked at as abnormal behaviors and psychosis. In light of that fact, my own thoughts might seem to be a slight reach, or a monumental one, depending on the interpretation of the reader. I happen to believe, upon reading this interesting information, that we all recognize these patterns and connections - we're just normally distracted by the overwhelming, multiple stressors and obligations of the workday world.

Could this concept marry up with the phenomenon of serendipity? I think it can.

Serendipity is defined as is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated.

That sounds quite similar to the concept of apophenia to me, albeit in a non-mental illness application! The Wiki definition does go on to say that subsequent understanding and application of the word apophenia is becoming more mainstream. I would say that that fact all on its own is an astonishing shift in consciousness in the medical and psychiatric communities, to allow that a definition meant for severely mentally challenged individuals can also apply to completely healthy, highly functioning individuals. That type of identification of mental and emotional status rarely crosses boundaries from one world to the other.

Do I have a point? I do, and it is that I learned a new word for what I normally call serendipity, and that gave me a happy moment today. The word apophenia opened up a whole new world of contemplation and study, and that's always exciting for me. The final thought is that this new-to-me word introduced me to a new concept, which, in turn, brought me full circle back to one of my favorite words. That would be, it appears, a stunning example of.....serendipity!

Funny and fascinating how I recognized that pattern. My recognition, was, however, very motivated! I love to discover these so-called random connections...about words, about music, about inspiration, about relationships, about history....about anything, really. It broadens my mind, forces me to observe and contemplate topics and concepts I might not otherwise ever look for intentionally. As a result, I am constantly growing and changing in a very elemental way.


  1. This blog was inspired by my FB friend, Brenda. I wanted to give credit to her for introducing me to the new word, which sparked this blog. Thanks, Bren!

  2. Dawn
    You may appreciate, I finally figured out how to comment here via the google sign in, It is a little complicated.

  3. Jeff, I agree on the complicated part. There are some blogs I follow where I still can't get the Comment feature to accept my posts. The following part isn't always that easy either! It would be great if they'd all become standardized, but that's probably a long way down the road. Thanks for sticking with it until you got it to work!

  4. I love this word and how you explained the part about the autistic kids. Anything medical grabs my attention and that was interesting! :)

  5. Thanks Marty! My attention is always captured by medical information as well. I was in the medical world for several years and that love stays with you. You'll always see medical stuff sprinkled in throughout some of the lighter posts. I like to stay informed and always be learning.