My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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love to apophenia

Apophenia has always been one of my favorite words. I like quirky “worthless” words. What makes me even happier is when my friends remember my quirky appreciation for these things and send me fun things, like this Atlantic Monthly article on Word Fugitives.

The first word sought was for “a situation in which you refuse to accept that the occurrence of two events is merely coincidental but there is no evidence to link them together.” For this the neologisms included fauxincidence, coincivince, coincidon’t, duperstition, and wishful linking.

Clement J. Colucci, of the Bronx, wrote, “The word apophenia was coined for that condition in 1958.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary, by Robert Todd Carroll, bears Colucci out (“Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena”). Standard dictionaries, however, do not list the word.

I do think that it’s funny that apophenia is usually considered a “condition.” I’ve even heard of it in reference to a “medical condition.” I guess it’s kinda like ADD – you can call it a condition; i call it a fantastic opportunity.

Oh, backstory on why i love apophenia. People often ask me how my research happens and it reminds me of people who ask me how i play Set – i stare at a problem long enough and something pops out. This was much more relevant when i was doing weird things like making connections between depth perception and sex hormones. But, my research still comes from this weird state where all of a sudden, two things get placed together in my brain – often in little mental visualizations. And then i obsessively try to determine if there really is a connection, if my hunches are at all valid. This is why methodology fascinates me. I’ve never been able to stick to one methodology because i see so many different ones as useful depending on what connections come together in my head. Luckily, i’m obsessed with proving myself wrong so my favorite task is to try to figure out what confounding variables are connecting disparate things in my head. Of course, it’s that criticalness that drives others nuts because i’m trying to tear apart everything around me. Tehehe.

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8 comments to love to apophenia

  • Scott Moore

    I think the idea of “making connections where none exists” is why I have continued to read apophenia even after my initial interest in your social software work.

    The two words I like to work in to conversation are “explicate” and “contraindicate”. I have personal stories about both words that make me chuckle every time I use them.

  • a fan

    Apophenia is a condition only when you don’t have the wonderful habit of tearing everything apart. Too many people don’t, and will continue to believe that unrelated things are connected even though they never find evidence to back it up, or even look very hard for it.

    With the aid of that very useful penchant for focused destructiveness (can I say how wonderful it is again?), apophenia is transformed from a condition to a form of creativity.

  • >Standard dictionaries.. do not list the word.

    This has me smiling from ear to ear. Thanks again for thinking of me. (btw, I was once a major player at Word Fugitives — ycliu.)

  • you might like CBC’s wanted words. it was a great feature of one of their radio shows.

  • > i stare at a problem long enough and something pops out.

    … for me nothing pops out until I leave the problem alone and wonder off and do something else. Most often, a solution bubbles up from my subconscious and pops into my mind over the next few days whilst doing something unrelated, usually during a daydream or when I am half awake in the morning taking a shower.

  • Brian

    Just to give you some props if you dont already know it, youre the first Google site under apophenia…a wonderful, quirky bit of fame

  • Granfaloon! (Vonnegut’s invented word describing an illusory grouping of people)

    Idiolect! (Merriam-Webster: the language or speech pattern of one individual at a particular period of life)

    Hooray for tasty words and for danah too. Never take the anti-apophenia meds.