Apophenia or Chaos Theory?


Less Ado – More Nothing

I was never able to follow the TV show, Seinfeld for two reasons. I taught graduate classes every Thursday night when it aired and there was no such thing as a DVR.

The subject of one of our faculty retreats was the question, “What is Sienfeld about?” It was a heady crew and not having seen many episodes, I thought we shared a rather existential conversation framed by the group’s consensus, “Nothing.”

I just found a word that may define the theme of this blog, Apophenia.

3 Circles & 1 Line

3 Circles 1 Line

Apophenia is a new word for me, freshly discovered by Googling “what does it mean to see patterns between unconnected concepts?”. Somewhere in the Cloud, perhaps generated by the wisdom of Larry Paige and Larry David, the word that emerged was, Apophenia.  Apophenia describes my philosophical proclivity to see patterns and connections between otherwise random data. As a researcher and evaluator, apophenia is a good thing because it helps to identify Type I errors. Type I, as in detecting a false positive or false pattern in the data. This leads the researcher to say, “Don’t jump to conclusions.” In my business, a bad jump can be a career killing error.

Apophenia is something about nothing – it’s a quest to find the something that binds reality.  Sometimes something really is bugging us that no longer exists but still has power over our future. Save that thought for your shrink but avoid it after two margaritas.

Everyone experiences apophenia – conspiracy theorists more than others (are the UFO’s in Roswell, NM hiding the missing bullet from the Kennedy Asasination?). Perhaps the most famous apopheniac was portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. How fast can you count toothpicks or cards?

Butterflies and Chaos


This blog is also about Chaos Theory, the science of surprises. The world is made up of relationships that don’t follow a straight path from A to Z. It’s okay to skip a vowel or consonant whenever we try to make sense of our life experience. Chaos Theory and Apophenia make it acceptable to refrain from predicting the future or worry about things we can’t control. Chaos Theory helps us see connections between a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent and a hurricane in another and between the glaciers melting in the Arctic and monarch butterflies disappearing in Mexico.

These ways of knowing the world call for us to question whether  the nature of the universe is to establish connections. Recognizing connections, seeking patterns in a random world gives birth to fresh insights and great wisdom. Making connections changes the way the world is viewed. Seeing the world through chaos changes what is – to what can be.

There is another word that describes my blog but it’s less exotic. I’ll credit this one to the psychiatrist Carl Jung who used the word synchronicity to describe connecting things in the mind with other events in the world. Jung cautions that two random events are probably just that unless connected by a person’s subjectivity.We want to make sense of the world by believing there is a certain order to existence. There is a more subtle desire implied by synchronicity. People want to believe that many connections have causal relationships. We hear the adage “things happen for a reason” to rationalize misfortune. The optimist exercises synchronicity when giving money to a panhandler believing he will use it for food. Money in a tin cup and food at the quick mart have no real connections unless one wants them to be linked. Reality is mostly in our heads.

It’s all about the word. Is this blog about apophenia or nothing? Chaos Theory or Synchronicity? And if none of them fit and a tree falls in the forest will a bear still defecate in the woods? Imagine a revision of an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza tells Jerry, “I want to pitch NBC a show about apophenia – folks will love it! There’s nothing like it on the air – just people making connections between random things.”

Darn, that was Keifer Sutherland in 24.


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