What is apophenia

Apophenia is the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data and unconnected events or stimuli 1). Indeed, apophenia as a trait is positively correlated with identification of meaningful patterns in noisy or random visual stimuli 2). Apophenia may be caused, at least in part, by the low levels of latent inhibition that have been demonstrated repeatedly in psychosis and schizotypy 3). Impaired ability to correctly infer others’ mental states (‘Theory of Mind’) and the tendency to perceive meaning in unrelated events (‘apophenia’) have been implicated in vulnerability to schizophrenia 4). In humans, this is an empirically well-documented phenomenon 5).

Schizotypy is a personality trait (more precisely, a cluster of traits) that reflects subclinical levels of symptoms of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders in the general population, and it is a major liability factor for those disorders. Dopamine has long been implicated in schizophrenia, and most anti-psychotic medications are dopamine antagonists 6). Importantly, excess dopamine seems to be involved specifically in the psychotic, or positive, symptoms of schizophrenia, which include magical ideation, perceptual aberrations (e.g., hallucination), and overinclusive thinking 7). All the symptoms of positive schizotypy can be described as apophenia, the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns and causal connections where none in fact exist, and these symptoms are predicted by Openness 8). Openness/Intellect describes the general tendency to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, creative, artistic, thoughtful, and intellectual. The psychological process unifying these traits has been identified as “cognitive exploration,” with cognition conceived broadly to include both reasoning and perceptual processes 9). The tendency to detect covariance patterns, which is associated with Openness as well as apophenia 10), may lead to over-interpretation of coincidences and sensory noise as meaningful patterns. Occasional failures to detect associations of latent inhibition with schizotypy may be due to the confounding of positive and negative symptoms. The latter comprise anhedonia—that is, lack of pleasure in sensory and social experience—and may actually be positively related to latent inhibition 11), which is consistent with the association of anhedonia with dopamine 12). In neuroimaging studies, schizotypy has predicted Dopamine-2 receptor density and dopamine release in response to amphetamine 13). Excess dopamine has been described as producing “aberrant salience” in schizophrenia-spectrum disorders 14). The association of apophenia with Openness suggests that both may be influenced by level of activity in the salience system 15), although apophenia seems likely to be more specifically related to dopamine than is Openness more generally.

Figure 1. Model of schizotypy

Model of schizotypy
[Source 16) ]

Inclusion of positive schizotypy or apophenia as a facet of Openness is nearly as controversial as inclusion of intelligence as a facet of Intellect, in part because apophenia is weakly negatively correlated with intelligence and nearly uncorrelated with questionnaire measures of Intellect. Nonetheless, DeYoung et al 17) have shown that both apophenia and intelligence load positively on the general Openness/Intellect factor, and that when Openness and Intellect are separated, then apophenia loads strongly with Openness 18). The negative association of apophenia with intelligence suggests it could be caused in part by an imbalance of dopaminergic function in different branches of the salience system. If striatal dopamine is highly active in response to salient events, encouraging the assignment of meaning to correlational patterns, but dopamine levels in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are either too high or too low to support working memory and intelligence, this could lead to difficulty differentiating likely from unlikely patterns 19). Deficits in intelligence with causes entirely unrelated to dopamine could also produce apophenia in conjunction with high levels of activity in the salience coding system 20). Apophenia is clearly linked to Openness and can be well-described as “openness to implausible patterns” 21).

In the Personality Inventory for the DSM 5 22) and in the Personality Psychopathology Five model 23), positive schizotypy or apophenia is labeled Psychoticism. The construct measured by the Personality Inventory for the DSM 5 24) and other scales assessing apophenia should not be confused with the construct measured by Eysenck’s Psychoticism scale, which most personality psychologists agree was mislabeled, as it measures antisocial and impulsive behavior (sometimes called “impulsive non-conformity”) rather than positive schizotypy 25). Some have considered impulsive non-conformity to be a facet of schizotypy, but it is distinct from the positive psychotic symptoms that are characterized by apophenia. Eysenck’s Psychoticism does not appear to predict risk for schizophrenia diagnosis 26). Studies linking Eysenck’s Psychoticism to dopamine 27) are thus most relevant to the sections Impulsivity and Sensation Seeking and Aggression below, which discuss impulsivity and aggression.

Apophenia symptoms

Apophenia is the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data and unconnected events or stimuli 28).

References   [ + ]

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