Seeing patterns in the world can be natural. But a fixation on patterns or assigning meaning where there is none may mean something more.
Many people have willingly engaged in harmless pattern-seeking. Looking up at the stars, for example, to spot repeating shapes can be a fun diversion on a warm summer evening.
This inclination to find patterns in unrelated information is known as patternicity or apophenia. It’s a process linked to learning and predicting outcomes in everyday life.
While seeing patterns can be a part of natural brain function, obsessively seeking patterns or meaning in patterns may be a sign of a mental health condition.
Your brain is wired to notice patterns.
If, for example, you notice your apple tree makes the largest apples after a rainy spring, you may start to predict what years will be plentiful based on precipitation.
You’ve learned through patterns what to expect for your apple harvest.
Noticing patterns can be crucial, but the brain can sometimes form patterns out of unrelated sensory data in processes known as apophenia and pareidolia.
In these situations, the patterns you identify have no true relevance to reality or learning.
It’s natural to be able to spot patterns — even in randomness.
“Apophenia is the general term for the human tendency to see patterns in meaningless data that may involve visual, auditory, or other senses,” explains Dr. Harold Hong, a psychiatrist from Raleigh, North Carolina.
He points out that pareidolia is a specific form of apophenia that refers to seeing visual patterns in random or ambiguous visual stimuli, such as seeing a face in the clouds.
Apophenia and pareidolia are common occurrences, says Hong, and challenges often only present when someone becomes fixated on specific patterns or details that others perceive as random.
“While both phenomena are natural human tendencies, they can become concerning if someone starts to fixate on specific patterns excessively,” he says, noting that apophenia may be prevalent in certain mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Apophenia is the perception of meaningful patterns in any unrelated information, including sounds, sights, or experiences. It includes the visual-specific phenomenon of pareidolia.
Common examples of apophenia include:
- putting together unrelated events (conspiracy theories)
- seeing objects in the clouds
- identifying a face in your food or drink
- being able to pick out common pareidolias, such as the “man on the moon” face
- making bold decisions based on a perceived pattern of luck
- making large generalizations based on a small sample group (for example, all apples must be red because I’ve only seen red apples)
- feeling as though you’re always seeing the same numerical sequence or same time on the clock
Both apophenia and pareidolia are considered cognitive “type I errors,” or false positives — beliefs that things are real when they aren’t.
The exact cause of type I errors isn’t well understood, but
In other words, patterns help your brain make preliminary decisions through association rather than in-depth knowledge.
The less you understand stimuli, the more likely you may be to seek patterns to explain it.
The inability to see patterns that are real, an experience known as apatternicity, is known as a “type II error” or believing something isn’t real when it is.
Problematic apophenia that interferes with your functionality or daily life may be due to more than an active learning process.
“There are a few mental health conditions that can be characterized by seeing excessive patterns, such as OCD, schizophrenia, and autism,” says Hong. “Still, it is crucial to note that not everyone who experiences these conditions will see extreme patterns.”
As a type I cognitive error, apophenia may also appear alongside conditions that feature symptoms of psychosis, according to
Apophenia may also be the result of physiological brain abnormalities or damage that affects the areas of the brain responsible for learning.
Does seeing patterns mean you have a high chance of experiencing psychosis?
While pattern-seeking may occur with conditions that involve reality distortion, a 2022 study found that false insight can happen to anyone under the right circumstances and isn’t indicative of psychosis.
If you feel as though seeing patterns controls your life, there are ways to help break the cycle of repetitiveness.
Speaking with a healthcare or mental health professional can help identify underlying causes of apophenia. Your experience may be related to mental health conditions or structural changes in the brain.
“A mental health expert can help you assess whether you may be experiencing an abnormal level of pattern-seeking behavior and how to best address it,” Hong indicates.
Increasing your awareness
In addition to professional guidance, Hong suggests keeping a journal to track how you’re seeing patterns.
“This can help you become more aware of your pattern-seeking behavior and may help you find other ways to cope with it,” he says.
When seeing patterns becomes excessive, they can be as unwelcome as any form of intrusive thought. Like anxiety rumination, pattern obsession may benefit from distraction techniques.
Hong recommends engaging in other activities that shift focus away from specific patterns, such as exercise, spending time with family or friends, or picking up new hobbies.
If you need to pull yourself out of seeing patterns, you may benefit from grounding techniques that use other sensory stimuli to recenter your thoughts.
Seeing patterns is a natual function of the human brain intended to help you learn. You may sometimes find patterns in randomness, a process known as apophenia.
When pattern-seeking becomes obsessive, excessive, or controls decisions you make throughout the day, you may be experiencing more than patternicity. You may be living with a mental health condition.
Professional guidance, awareness practices, and active distraction may help prevent seeing patterns from becoming intrusive.