Monday, November 02, 2009

Faith Works 11-7

Faith Works 11-7-09

Jeff Gill


The Care and Feeding of Apophenia



At an archaeology conference held on the OSU-N campus in the Reese Center, one of the presenters talked about "apophenia."


If you work with the evaluation of survey data or graphic information of any sort, you know the word, but it's a concept that most of us bump up against without ever needing to put a label on it.


Apophenia is just the term for seeing patterns or something familiar where there is actually no intended meaning, whether turning a stump in the twilight into a dog, or calling an arrangement of stars a bear or plow or dipper.


Pareidolia is a related concept, more specifically when our senses help us mistake randomness for meaningfulness. The best example of pareidolia that we're all familiar with is hearing the phone ring while we're in the shower. The white noise of water spraying creates so many little audio signatures that our brain kicks into overdrive, trying to hear *something,* and forces from the sound the sense that a distant phone is signaling.


Scientists point out that pattern recognition is what makes our brains so useful, and in fact children and adults with autism spectrum disorders can be so sensitized to sorting out inputs (to a fault, perhaps even obsessively) that they notice patterns that actually *are* there, but that most average people don't catch.


To a very different extreme is when a mentally ill person hears a message just for them in the arrangement of TV advertizing, or a voice speaking to them just below the dialogue in a movie.


Each year in the autumn I think about apophenia, and ancient history, and faith. The talk at the Reese Center poked me because I usually don't write about this subject just before Hallowe'en because it has the potential to push so many odd buttons, and often it's barely a day after Nov. 1 and All Saints' when the big push to the Holiday Season eats all our attention.


When the days grow short, and the darkness gathers quickly, and pools of shadow never see light again in our homes and yards until  March or later; when the waving branches of bare tree limbs claw a skeletal hand against a full moon; when the skitter of dry leaves pace an irregular step across the garage floor . . .


There's a certain logic, a necessity of ghosts and spirits and haunting that I cannot but find inevitable when I think what life must have been like not so very long ago, and there is in our well-lit, open plan, tidy cornered age an equally unsurprising grasping after the uncanny where it rarely occurs without a little pump priming.


Think about green timbers creaking, board floors all askew, small windows with "crazy" glass (the term itself comes from the pattern of ripples and cracks in old panes), and that's just indoors. Think about deep gloom within the forest, actual predators not fearful of humans (and many more human predators, whatever you've heard of "good old days"), and the limits of candle and torch, themselves generating a dancing flicker of shadow as much as of light.


Seeing those who had died in the bedroom corner, the shed's fence corner, or along the treeline, especially when the dead grew more numerous in your life by the year, by the week, starting in youth – of course you did. Today not a few of us get into our 30s and even more before we even see a funeral or a casket with contents, and what house is without lights and outlets in every corner, inside and outside?


Add in a bit of malnutrition, a general state of ill health combined with rare glasses for no less frequent poor vision, and it doesn't take imagination or even wishful thinking to see what isn't there.


Having thought this through, I read old documents with a slightly different eye: then I run across those who skip along from such considerations to the assertion that all religious belief is apophenia, "hindsight effect," that pareidolia is the source of every encounter with the divine.


This is where church leadership is tested, especially this time of year. Are the only two choices between agreeing with every out-of-the-corner of the eye apparition, or absolute scientific materialism? I'd say there's a fascinating middle ground for us to explore, and I hope to come back to this subject in the next few weeks.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he hopes you enjoy discovering useful words for odd occasions as much as he does. Share a new term with him at, or follow Knapsack

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