Why We Find Patterns in Randomness

Ryan Fan


I see patterns in randomness all the time, even if sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, not a phallic symbol. For me, everything going wrong in a given warning is a sign of God wanting me to be challenged on a given morning. The run that ran poorly was a sign of God’s plan that running wasn’t for me that day. The fact that I’m not motivated to do my work means God wants me to do something else at a given moment.

The gambler’s paradox is the phenomenon of someone who places bets and looks for patterns to take advantage of. However, those patterns tend not to actually be there, so according to American physicist, Richard A. Muller, “the routine heel really is random — at least at an honest casino.” Each spin of the roulette is inherently random, and in the world of gambling, streaks don’t empirically exist. The gambler’s paradox is also called the Monte Carlo fallacy and the fallacy of the maturity of chances, and is widely cited as to why people gamble as much as they do.

There’s actually a psychological term for the tendency to ascribe patterns to randomness — apophenia. Psychiatrist Klaus Conrad defines apophenia as the “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.” Within the sphere of apophenia is pareidolia, which is a perception of images and sounds in random stimuli — like seeing a face in an inanimate object, or seeing the face of Jesus on tree stumps.

Dr. Po Chi Wu in Psychology Today asks, then, whether life is just a series of random events. He talks about various levels of consciousness. Our tendency towards apophenia doesn't mean everything is random, as much as I might believe. But does a lack of randomness mean there are patterns? And who created those patterns if they exist? Are those patterns comprehensible for humans?

For me, my faith dictates that I will never know God’s plan or ways. Job acknowledges in Job 42:2 the comprehensibility of God:

“I know that you can do all things
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Vox made a YouTube video asking why we so often find faces in purses, or why we experience pareidolia. We are fascinated faces of Jesus in tree trunks. Pareidolia, in Greek, means “beyond the image.” It became considered a form of psychosis after psychologists started testing pareidolia in the Rorshach Test.

But why are our brains constantly trying to make patterns in things where there intrinsically aren’t patterns? For example, why do we constantly see patterns in the stars? The stars did not align to look like a dipper or a bear, so why did we give them those names and try to make sense of the universe’s nonsense?

A 2009 study from Hadjikhani et al. in NeuroReport found that the fusiform face area became activated when people saw faces in non-face objects. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), the researchers found that people who perceived faces in objects had early activation in the fusiform face area, faster than perceptions of common objects, and only slower than the perception of actual faces:

“Our findings suggest that face perception evoked by face-like objects is a relatively early process, and not a late re-interpretation cognitive phenomenon,” Hadjikhani et al. said.

Wu asks the grand question at the end of the day: how much of our future can we actually influence? I believe that my success, when I have it, is a series of lucky coincidences. I work hard. I’m passionate. But a million things had to break my way, like growing up with both parents, growing up in America, a roof above my head, and food on my plate.

He talks a lot about entrepreneurs, who often talk about success as being in the right place at the right time. He says that they tend to have a “single-minded focus” for good timing, and as a result, interpret random events as meaningful. In the state of single-mindedness, is there a liberation in not overthinking things and just doing — is there a benefit to ascribing so much meaning to randomness.

Well, it seems like I’m finding a lot more questions than answers in the discussion of why we find patterns in randomness. My faith is inherently finding patterns in randomness — as is every religion. I don’t see any shame in that.

After the 2016 election, there were a million explanations all over the news and social media for why Hillary lost and why Trump won — disillusionment with the establishment, e-mails, the Democratic party becoming the party of coastal elites, and leaving white working-class voters behind, Russia, and more.

However, I have come to see a cigar as just a cigar, that she just lost because, well, she lost. My friends and I tried hard to find meaning, to find a pattern, and yet we constantly deny how much luck and randomness factor into the equation. According to Dr. Bruce Poulsen at Psychology Today, that tendency is natural:

“Our brains are pattern-detection machines that connect the dots, making it possible to uncover meaningful relationships among the barrage of sensory input we face. Without such meaning-making, we would be unable to make predictions about survival and reproduction. The natural and interpersonal world around us is too chaotic.”

He cites the statistical Type II error — the false positive, where we see a pattern where no pattern exists. But from a perspective of survival in the Darwinian sense, it’s better “to erroneously interpret danger where none is present” to survive. He frames the brain’s tendency to make these kinds of errors and describes the system as a form of cognitive efficiency:

“Quick reactions depend on a cost-benefit ratio that favors safety and survival.”

Science historian, Michael Shermer, describes the phenomenon of patternicity, which is the same thing as apophenia. We misfire our pattern-recognition systems to see patterns of cars in clouds or on the moon. We believe in conspiracy theories about tragedies. We ascribe our dispositions to horoscopes and the month we were born. Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism, many parents still believe it.

Poulsen urges us to then view apophenia differently than we currently do, not as cognitive defects, but an “ironic, even amusing aspect of our nature”:

“If we embraced our vulnerability to cognitive errors, we would not be so easily caught off guard.”

As a writer, apophenia is a way of making spontaneous connections between unconnected people and events. A good story often weaves a variety of seemingly unconnected connections. Stories are all about making patterns out of randomness, and according to the researchers at the University of California — Irvine, our brains love stories as a survival mechanism, which means meaning-making out of randomness is a survival mechanism.

Finding patterns in the randomness of life, then, is human. It helps us survive, and we naturally evolved as humans to do so. But maybe I, too, am just finding patterns in randomness here, and I’ll never understand truly why we find patterns in randomness.

Photo from Free Nature Stock on Pexels

Originally published on Publishous on September 22, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD

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