Archive January 2013
Apophenia sounds like the
name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song
Contest. The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a
psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between
unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful,
abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental
Over the years the
definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be
used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal
believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters.
The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person
to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually
connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the
connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental
In Thailand, when someone
famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number
based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death.
Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both)
for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to
arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia.
Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world,
politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a
behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.
And of course, apophenia
is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A
mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and
literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections
between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those
We experience a scene, a
smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a
story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city.
The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that
time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and
thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same
There’s a middle-aged
woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could
sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from
her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They
have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly
tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve
been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an
argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a
mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers.
They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.
Seated down the car are
three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a
company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late
twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third
woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a
teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They
are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips
from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the
money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who
have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she
has been kept on. In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not
three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by
availability. They haven’t been fired. It is another workday, and they
will be back on the job tomorrow.
That is a simple train
ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the
day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects
that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method
of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental
stuff to be a writer.
There is a bit of insanity
in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination
(except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One
separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from
ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our
beach each day.
Apophenia is our brain
trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We
recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is
a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a
connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free
will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be
‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the
‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole
suddenly are meaningful.
Most people can’t resist
being seduced by such connections.
People who claim to see
images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an
example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this
condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers,
mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality
are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the
Films like the Twelve
Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace
apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is
an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that
apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections
between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of
non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science
fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret
knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected
everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream
of gold light radiated from a fish necklace. Drugs. Did I mention, Philip
K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?
Mystics and religious
figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information
and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is
An epiphany is making a
connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and
underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has
A powerful emotional
experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with
unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut
had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers
fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been
baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of
connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels
danced around that event, drawing from that experience.
What vests a fiction
author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase
just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors
come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks
us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized
in three words: “I was there.”
I bear witness to the
experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and
horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I
connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other
people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the
connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world.
The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt
Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator
aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of
first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float,
collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the
Readers still seek to know
the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling
connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been
violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens
us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way
to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be
false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what
gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the
least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.
We look to the imagination
of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what
it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden
universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of
Next time your financial
advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial
killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in
Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in
Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your
shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in
After you finish this
essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or
flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on
the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of
unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and
offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or
enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher
the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a
cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is
mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the
correct pattern in front of him.
It seems we suffer either
way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols,
events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds
the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has
a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether
you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you
assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and
After all, one thing is
certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in
Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that
space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are
not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had
survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from
his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been
connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back
in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there.
And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his
(Originally published 25 May
|AUTHOR’S DEDICATIONS IN SECOND HAND BOOKS
What does an author do
when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking
about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of
As I can’t cover all
second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to
write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive
studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by
the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.
In a time of bookstore
closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their
revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write
those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you
might find of mine).
I have a few suggestions
for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of
I am positive that you
will come up with much better material.
The Wisdom of
Beer dedication list might include the following:
my dear friend, Donald Trump,
Thanks for the napkin from
A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am
sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should
The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place
it in the new edition.
Former New Yorker, Vincent
my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,
Thanks for writing to tell
me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible.
Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the
book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.
Best wishes from me and
all of my pack of six, CM
Your probation officer
gave asked that I send you The Wisdom of Beer to help keep you
out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better
You can reject beer or
wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a
majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to
rebuild your shattered life.
Peace, Fairness and Love
bring huge dividends, CGM
I won’t ever forget our
night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for
2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you
will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our
special time together.
General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,
I know you are new to the
job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring
that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to
mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party
member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all
orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the
Your Comrade in Suds, C.
You’ve made “The Cable
Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite
intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good
self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to
showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer?
The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost.
Face it. You need that. Have a beer.
The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of
Everyone author has a
muse. Along with painters, composers, dancers, and other performing artists. The
muse has a long tradition. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses, but the one
writers and artist are most fond of is called the Muse. An artist might be an atheist
when it comes to God and religion but the Muse makes the most logical and
skeptical of the bunch, into believers as to the intangible forces of creativity
and inspiration. Someday when neuroscience decodes consciousness, the neural
structure that creates the illusion of the Muse will be discovered. Until that
day, we are little ahead of ancient Greece.
The idea of supernatural
artistic inspiration had been around long before being co-opted into ancient
The Muses, the
personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and
music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory
You may recognize the
mother, Mnemosyne, as the term ‘meme’ for that idea that infects the minds of
others comes from her name. Mind mental or memory were born from
For crime fiction authors,
the Muse known as Melpomene was one of the nine daughters and assigned to
inspire works of tragedy. Before you set up your home altar next to your
computer and call out to your inner Muse, there are a few things to know about
Muses—their mother, Melpomene, has a past.
Melpomene is portrayed
wearing a tragic mask and the cothurnus, boots traditionally worn by
tragic actors. In another version, she holds a knife or club in one hand and the
tragic mask in the other. She wears a crown of cypress. Her father was Zeus and her
mother Mnemosyne. And if you wanted an inspiration for a lyrical phrase she was
the Muse you made offering to.
Words like ‘amuse’ and
‘museum’ derive from the original use of Muse. Many ancient writers paid homage
to the Muse: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.
Living in a culture like
Thailand where spirits are daily worshipped at small spirit houses scattered
throughout the land, and upcountry workers as well as city workers, give
offerings; the idea of the Muse is a natural fit. Spirit Houses erected on the
premises housing newspapers, publishers, media houses and advertising agencies
don’t yet display statues of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. But 2013
is young and the meme of Muse hasn’t gone viral in Thailand. Finding a Muse to
present at Government House and Parliament might ‘inspire’ if not poetry, some
new comedy and tragedy to retire the old tropes people don’t find of
I have a theory (or two)
about the nature of the Muse. When one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and
Zeus come to visit, pay attention. What kills creativity is distraction. What
ignites the imagination is found through focus and attention that seeks to find
a new pattern, a new way of seeing or thinking. That kind of thinking is
difficult. It takes lots of resources. You can witness the Muse indirectly when
you see a great painting, or theatrical production or read a great book. The
result of the best of the arts is the creation of something out of
Most of the time, our
attention is divided. We have too much on our mind, pulling it this way and the
other. We flit from problem to problem, image to image, from the past to the
future, like a bird hoping from branch to branch looking for the tree. But the
issue isn’t limited to the non-stop discontinuous internal mental streaming, we
also add to our distraction by the input streaming into our brain from the
exterior world. To call on the Muse to visit means a commitment to closing down
our random thoughts and to shut out stimulation from the outside world. TV off.
Internet off. Phone off. “Do not disturb” sign on the closed door.
Light a candle. Wait for
the Muse to deliver the right word, phrase, scene, and image that fit into a
narrative flow. That is my other theory about the Muse. It is another way of
describing the flow. Musicians, writers, dancers and painters know that space
where the notes, words, movements, colors appear as if from another place, and
create a narrative force that carries the creator along a path he or she would
never have discovered inside a mind cluttered with internal and exterior
The Flow is the space
artists seek to enter and never leave. When I write, I work to find that space
because in the Flow all the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne are manning the
oars on a boat that navigates itself around bends, and through rapids, and
delivers you to a destination you never would have discovered in a world too
full of noise.