We See What isn’t There

We See What isn’t There

I have long quipped that, “humans are so good at seeing patterns that we find them where none exist.”  But it wasn’t until sometime in graduate school that I learned the technical term for it: “apophenia.”  (A visual apophenia is a pareidolia.)  I still share this one with my students at some appropriate juncture almost every term.

Humans see figures in clouds, constellations in stars, the man in the moon, deeper significance in particular numbers (i.e., 3, 7, 12, 23, 666), and faces in geological formations.  We are more prone to seeing relatively simple patterns in randomness than we are to missing simple patterns that do exist.  We are also prone to asserting the reality of specific kinds of pattern: linearities, periodicities, and those that mimic some natural forms like the human face.

The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars.  Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face.  Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.
The Cydonia Mensae region of Mars. Many see the hill in the top center of this photo (taken by Viking 1 in 1976) as a face. Inset: the same region photographed in 2006 by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Recon Orbiter.

I contend that apophenia was adaptive.  In fact, one of the key characteristics defining our shared experience is that humans are active, adaptive, meaning-makers.  Our strength and our weakness is that we are so very good at identifying perceived patterns in all forms of stimuli: visual, aural, tactile, conceptual, cultural, social, and others.  This is a characteristic humans share with all life, but we are particularly facile at it and this ability is one of the roots of our evolutionary success.  It is also a source of many of our human problems.

Our ancestors who were more likely to discern patterns in the world were more likely to detect potentially harmful patterns, and so more likely to survive.  They lived in the midst of nature, life was precarious, and mistakes could often be deadly.  If they reacted to a potentially negative sensory pattern and it turned out to be false, then they could survive to laugh it off as an overreaction.  But if they failed to notice those environmental signals, then the chances are one of those missed cues would eventually kill them.

Consider Og and Froosh, two early human ancestors hunting on the savannah.  They grunt to one another in their proto-language…

Og: “Oh, look, there’s a rustling in the underbrush.  Ya think it might be a sabertooth tiger?”

Froosh: “Nah, it’s just the wind.”

Og: “I dunno.  I think I’m gettin’ outta here.”

Og runs away.  Froosh, laughing at his timidity, is eaten by the sabertooth tiger that emerges from the brush.  This may have happened many times before with Og running from shadows and the wind while Froosh mocked his jumpy friend.  But the result was that, the one time Og was right, Froosh died.  Cautious Og lives on to have a family and dies peacefully on his pallet at the ripe old age of 40.  We learned, over many generations, that it is better to err on the side of apophenia.

There are only two ways we can be wrong: we can think we’ve detected a pattern when, in fact, there is none (Type I error, alpha error, or false positive), or we can miss detecting a pattern that really exists (Type II error, beta error, or false negative).  Type I error happens when our detection gear is too sensitive, Type II error is a result of it not being sensitive enough.

The scientific method is inherently conservative — not in the political sense, but in the sense of requiring exceptional evidence for us to provisionally accept a newly identified pattern as probably real.  It is designed to guard especially against those false positives.  This is particularly important because humans are adapted to err on the side of Type I, and not Type II, error.  All things being equal, we are far more likely to “see” something that does not exist than to not notice something that is real.

But being prone to Type I error is not now as adaptive as it long was.  We have created an environment that no longer rewards this tendency as it did.  We have created a world that is busier and chock full of signals, but many of those are not meaningful or relevant — and their speed and density is confusing, further encouraging us to find meaning where we can make it.  We have also created a world where a greater proportion of the signals we experience are human created cultural products — reinforcing our default position of finding patterns (because they now really are everywhere), and so our likelihood of falling prey to apophenia (not everything is pattern).

Extreme cases of apophenia may be debilitating, and so usefully categorized as pathological, but such cases are rare.  It’s everyday forms are far more common and often result in poor decisions.  Apophenia is also doubtlessly related to human creativity, which is a necessary trait.  Innovation entertains us, enriches us, and allows us to progress, individually and collectively.  But too much creativity incorrectly applied leads us down blind alleys, wastes human effort, and even destroys lives.

As always, the trick is still to discern which patterns are real and which are (sometimes even well-meant) illusion.  The trick is to find the balance allowing us to recognize the reality facing us and still see those possibilities not yet recognized.  It is easy to recognize apophenia in those with whom we disagree.  Our continuing challenge is to see it in ourselves, and in those we love and respect.

[I particularly recommend this Digital Bits Skeptic article for an in-depth exploration of apophenia.]

What Our Shoes Say

I wear only four different pairs of shoes: muffy house slippers for around the house (except when, being an absent-minded professor, I forget to change before going out), New Balance running shoes that I try to put a few miles on each day, Birkenstocks for the summer, and for everything else, my cowboy boots.

Now for those of you unfamiliar, a quality pair of cowboy boots is the most comfortable thing you will ever slip on your feet.  I’ve had my pair of Lucchese Classics for about 14 years — far more expensive footwear than I could ever have afforded in grad school were it not for serendipity or plain dumb luck.  They’ve been re-heeled each year and half-soled at least four times.  They go with everything from my jeans to my tuxedo.  They’ve taken me everywhere for any occasion: down to the corner and around the world, to many states and several countries — and I was even married in them (twice).  But despite the best care I can give them, they’ve just about reached the end of their road.

It was with heavy heart that I finally decided to find a new pair.  I like to support local merchants, so I looked around and found Nigro’s Western Store.  I spoke with George, the owner, and he asked me to come in so that we could make sure he got it right.  We drove across the city and, despite a bustling business, he took the necessary time to make sure I had the right boot order (and at a price that beat anything I could find on the web).

So in another five to seven weeks, my new pair of friends will arrive and, I’m sure, we will become comfortable and find many new adventures together.  But as a sociologist, I started thinking, “what do our shoes say about us?”

My new boot.
My new boot.

Since I only really wear two types of footgear out of the house, my feet are only sending two messages: both cowboy boots and Birkenstocks have strong, and conflicting, cultural associations.  Birkenstocks are the apex of “hippy-dippy” liberal association, and I suppose they match my hair, which has not been cut in more than a decade.  Cowboy boots are the quintessential rural American footwear, and these do match my truck.  Both have strong political associations: Birkenstocks are taken as liberal and cowboy boots are seen as conservative.

My sandals are also associated with my profession: my students have never thought it strange to see a sociology professor in Birkenstocks, but many have commented over the years on how strange they thought it was for a professor to wear cowboy boots.

On the one hand, this association speaks to the stereotypes we learn: why must sandals denote liberalism and boots imply conservatism?  And on the other, it illustrates the shortcuts we all take to pigeonhole one another using the most superficial signs.  All feet clad in Birkenstocks are not attached to bodies with liberal skulls, and all those in boots are not out to kick the “other.”  Most of us are far more complex, conflicted, and middling.  Yet it is easy for us to conveniently ignore these facts as we vilify those who seem different.

But since I am very aware of these associations, the deeper personal question is: how am I choosing to portray myself?  I could just wear tennis shoes or loafers.  But I don’t.  It could just be that I find my boots (and to a lesser extent, my sandals) comfortable.  And I do.  But how much of that comfort is physical and much is mental?  That I do not know.

What I do know is that I am not comfortably and consistently at home in either extreme of the political spectrum.  It is true that I am most often on the “left” side of the chamber, but not for the reasons most would think.  It is also true that I tend to see both sides of a well-reasoned argument, just as I am put off by unthinking cant from either end.

Perhaps my feet are a quiet testament to the conflict always raging in my heart — or perhaps not.  I’m just looking forward to my new boots.