The Observer is a great and passionate lover of words, these bare squiggles that enable us to do what no other creature can do, which is, of course, to pass our knowledge on beyond the point of our own end and thereby potentially live forever, or at least until the sun burns out or all the paper crumbles to dust, whichever comes first. A great writer once called the written word the greatest practical joke mankind has ever played on itself, and a pretty good trick it is! We fall for it over and over, brought to rage, tears, giggles and full-throated laugher by little marks on paper or (these days) screens. Connections, ladies and germs! Connections. Language is the razor you have been carrying since someone first leaned into your new, cherubic face and said “Ma Ma,” the edge stropped on the wide belt of experience every day since then. Yours Truly writes “apple,” and suddenly, projected on the crowded billboard of your mind, there it is: the waxy fruit that tempted Eve and Adam, shining red, the stem, the delicious curve, maybe even the taste and sassy crunch curling, like a phantom, into the vault of your mouth. Magic!
The Observer, a greedy sort who is always trying to extend our share of that magic, loves it when we come across a tasty new word. This week’s word: Apophenia. It is, of course, the tendency of your brain to want to make order out of nothingness, the name for that thing that happens when you look at the clouds and see not puffs of water vapor buffeted by high-altitude winds, but babies and hippos, hot fudge sundaes and the H.M.S. Bounty. You knew there had to be a name for it, didn’t you? Now you know.
It’s not really known for sure why we make those spooky connections of thought, where radio static might seem to become unearthly whispers in the dark watches of the night, but the best theory going is that it helped us survive back in the Bad Ol’ Days, the idea being that Caveman Ung, who readily convinced himself that every shadowy bush and snapping twig was a ravenous cave bear, would live longer than Caveman Monga, who blew off the little voice in his head, believing it was always The Other Neanderthal who wound up as something’s lunch. Probably didn’t do a thing for Ung’s blood pressure, but at least he lived to nervously sire little cavelets, who begat and begat and begat unto the 99th generation and thus became you, good sir or madam. Congratulations.
The problem is that, even though humanity has mostly outgrown the need to be always on guard for something that might eat us, a lot of us have still got ol’ apophenia hanging around our brains, making otherwise rational people more prone to believe in hokum and dark conspiracies that limit their trust of others and their world — everything from ghosts to 9/11 Trutherism to Caveman Ung’s steadfast belief that the dark and dripping cave just west of the rock that looks like a mastodon contains a Marxist Communist Socialist Kenyan Manchurian Candidate who time-traveled back to place a newspaper announcement about his birth in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961 so he could become president and thereby destroy America from within.
The upside is that apophenia — in addition to being crucial to the success of Fox News — is crucial to artistic creativity, allowing artists to make the broad, poetic leaps between two seemingly unconnected things or ideas so that a raven is like a writing desk, a rose is as thy lady’s cheeks, and Lucy is up there in the sky with diamonds, whatever the hell that means.
Ah, these brains of ours! Miracle of miracles. So full of mystery and wonder, most of it unconsidered by the vast majority of people, who are content to see their mind the same way they do their toaster and refrigerator and the Honda parked in the driveway: something that works and works well, so why wonder why it does so? Such a shame. Then again, too many of us live on the surface, dear traveling companions, never diving down into the murk of existence to touch the sandy bottom, where we might at last understand that there is, in fact, a bottom to this wide and swirling pool.