Apophenia, or patternicity, is characterized by seeing patterns in unrelated things. Anyone can experience this, but if you live with schizophrenia, it may be part of a delusion.

Apophenia, or seeing a pattern where one doesn’t actually exist, isn’t uncommon. You may have looked up at the sky and seen a cloud that looked like a puppy or a sailboat. Or, you may sometimes see faces in inanimate objects, like a tree or fire hydrant.

Professionals aren’t immune to apophenia, either. Scientists may draw conclusions from patterns in data that aren’t really there. Medical professionals may make an incorrect diagnosis based on apophenia.

For most people, apophenia is a common occurrence that doesn’t require treatment. But if you live with schizophrenia, apophenia can be part of a delusion.

If apophenia is disrupting your day-to-day life, there’s hope. Treatment options for schizophrenia may help manage symptoms and improve relationships.

Apophenia, also known as patternicity, means seeing patterns in random events. It also applies when people deduce meaning from numbers, images, shapes, or any other objects that are truly random.

This phenomenon is very common. We routinely look for patterns and are predisposed to finding patterns, even when there are none.

If you live with schizophrenia, patternicity can be a feature of paranoia, or delusions where you may believe you’re under threat. You may hold this belief because you see patterns in media or other aspects of the environment.

There are no known causes of apophenia. It may have its roots in human biology, where creating linkages between events has helped with survival.

In his book, “The Believing Brain,” author Michael Shermer gives the example of an early hominid who hears a rustle in the grass. They have a choice to connect that sound with a predator and to react or to assume that it’s nothing. Making the connection supports survival, as the hominid gets out of the way of the potential threat.

Apophenia can also be the result of training. Some scientists and medical professionals, like pathologists and nurses, connect facts and data to make diagnoses. But sometimes this skill can turn into a bias, where people see patterns that aren’t there.

This can be the case in historically marginalized groups — including People of Color and Indigenous people — and their communities, where bias on the part of medical professionals can then lead to misdiagnosis.

Delusions, which may include apophenia or patternicity, are one possible symptom of schizophrenia. There are several potential causes of schizophrenia, including family history, brain chemistry, environmental exposures, and substance use.

Apophenia is a general term that includes several different types of phenomena.

  • Pareidolia: This type involves seeing an image or sound from random visual or auditory stimuli. A common form is face pareidolia, where elements of an object can make them resemble a face.
  • Clustering illusion: This illusion involves seeing patterns in events and data when there is, in fact, no connection between data points.
  • Confirmation bias: This bias is the tendency to only accept information that confirms prior beliefs.
  • Gambler’s fallacy: This type involves believing that a prior series of events affects a future event, even though the two are unrelated.

Some of these types of apophenia are hard to avoid. Many people, for example, experience seeing a face in a natural feature, cloud, or collection of lines.

Apophenia exists in various realms of life, and most people experience it at one time or another. These experiences are usually harmless and natural.

Here are some examples:

  • You see emotion in a natural scene, like tree bark arranged to look like a bellowing mouth.
  • You interpret an everyday object as looking like a face, such as a fire hydrant with two round spouts above a single line.
  • A gambler sees a “winning streak” as a sign that they’ll continue to win.
  • A scientist sees a group of medical cases is a cluster, due to confirmation bias or ascribing too much meaning to unrelated points of data. Real clusters are thoroughly investigated before scientists confirm them.
  • Someone believes that an authority is out to get them because of patterns in media and everyday occurrences. They may also think media personalities are speaking directly to them. This is an example of a paranoid delusion.

Although patternicity may be connected to survival instincts, its central feature is that the connections people see aren’t really there.

Synchronicity is a term coined by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It refers to acausal connections, or when things become related even though there’s no obvious link between them.

This idea was part of Jung’s notion of a collective human unconscious. According to Jung, this was at the root of some behaviors, thoughts, and dreams.

Synchronicity is difficult to study objectively. It’s a one-time event that can’t be measured across an entire population. It’s also only experienced by one person.

While two people can participate in the same event, such as running into a certain person, it may only be an incidence of synchronicity for one person.

In his book, “The Improbability Principle,” renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that people underestimate the actual probability of apparently rare events — they’re actually not rare at all.

Since synchronicity can’t be scientifically studied and coincidences are more statistically probable than people realize, it may be a form of apophenia.

Since apophenia isn’t harmful, most people don’t require treatment. However, when it’s associated with delusions, treatment for schizophrenia may be recommended.

Treatment options can include:

If you know someone who may be experiencing delusions, there are several steps you can take to provide support. These may include:

  • establishing a trusting relationship
  • remaining calm and reassuring the person they’re safe
  • empathizing with the person
  • keeping a log of delusional symptoms

If you need additional help, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional. They may be able to offer more tips and strategies. You can also check out our page on supporting someone with schizophrenia for more ideas.

Joining a support group for family and friends of people with schizophrenia is also a great way to connect with others who share similar experiences and learn coping strategies.

You can start your search for a local support group at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Apophenia is often a common, harmless part of everyday life. But it can also make daily life more challenging if it’s part of psychosis, such as paranoia or delusions.

Whatever you or your family is experiencing, remember that you’re not alone. There are people who can help.

If you’re wondering where to start, you can try Mental Health America. They can connect you to support groups and medical providers close to you.