In a recent Slate article called “It’s All Connected,”, author Katy Waldman describes the spectrum of apophenia: the human creative tendency to see patterns where “none exist.” According to those who have identified the tendency, “Unlike an epiphany—a true intuition of the world’s interconnectedness—an apophany is a false realization.”
Begging the question of “true” and “false” realizations for the moment, Waldman says that examples can be cited on opposite ends of the spectrum : “it’s a profoundly human habit of mind that can underlie adaptive behaviors and reward flights of fancy, or induce all kinds of paranoia and silliness.”
Waldman goes on to cite scientists from the KEY Institute for Brain-Mind Research in Zurich who, in 2001, found that a “hyper-associative cognitive style” both nourished “belief in magical or psychic phenomena” and prompted divergent thinking—a measure of creativity. Apophenia’s defenders cite Leonardo da Vinci, who urged his students:
Look at walls covered with many stains … with the idea of imagining some scene, you will see in it a similarity to landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of all kinds … [also] battles and figures with lively gestures and strange faces and costumes and an infinity of things which you can reduce to separate and complex forms.
The connections among creativity, extreme anxiety, and PTSD have been well-documented. In his biography of PTSD, The Evil Hours, David J. Morris, former Marine, suggests, “Trauma destroys your connection to the universe. You can no longer make sense of the social and moral order; it’s as if reality has turned on you in a paranormal way.” A victim’s brain can respond by going into overdrive: “You try to explain what happened.”
Whether I was “born creative” or used writing and music as ways to adapt to the early, sudden, traumatic death of my sister (which I have written about in earlier posts), I would probably score pretty high on the apophenia spectrum. Perhaps coincidentally, such moments were more frequent before I finally received medication for my life-long anxiety.
It’s a fine balance to create “fictions” and yet to remain aware that you’re creating them. That high-wire act is what apparently separates the poet from the “mad” person and is what Wallace Stevens called “The Supreme Fiction.” It was his use of metaphor about which I wrote my dissertation many years ago.
“Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame,” he wrote in his poem “To a High-Toned Old Christian Woman.”
And in “Final Soliloquy of the Internal Paramour,” he writes:
We say God and the imagination are one . . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Here is his “The Snow Man”:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
According to many, it seems nearly impossible to be human and NOT to see things that “aren’t there.”
Finally, in my post earlier this week I referred to the necessity of “Beginner’s Mind” when one has been long absent from writing poetry. My “solution” was being able to write a “bad” poem and to call it a “draft.” Here, then, is the already-revised DRAFT I referred to, inspired by Waldman’s article on Apophenia:
Apophenia: An Apologia*
Look at walls covered with many stains … with the idea of imagining some scene, you will see in it a similarity to landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of all kinds … [also] battles and figures with lively gestures and strange faces and costumes and an infinity of things which you can reduce to separate and complex forms.– Leonardo da Vinci
All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.–Isak Dinesen
Some see Jesus in a grilled cheese.
When I first fell in love, I saw my beloved’s name everywhere.
The world shimmered with dopamine, grew brighter.
Things light up when they connect.
You can see it happen in the brain, like orgasm.
An addict, I’ve sought the music of metaphor everywhere.
Synchronicity** still sets me buzzing with delight,
its mysterious invitations exquisitely penned.
Part of how the world works,
they flare but cannot last.
I am Pisces with Taurus rising;
my lucky number is 27,
my spirit animal the hawk
(or the heron, depending);
once when I asked to be affirmed,
a feather appeared
at my feet.
I’ve thrown Hexagram 8 three times in a row.
Think of the odds.
The swirling linoleum on my bathroom floor
speaks volumes to me, especially
when stomach cramps strike.
After her son killed himself
my friend found a heartshaped rock,
took it as a comfort, direct from him.
But when her friends found heartshaped rocks too,
and sent them to her, her own no longer murmured.
Only then was she truly alone.
A bright, windless January day
seeks reassurance of connection.
Tonight’s cold constellations might tell a tale.
We’ve peopled the cosmos with relatives,
named new dwarf planets Makemake, Eris, Haumea, Ceres .
Like us, they chatter: fly endlessly round something
they can neither escape nor understand.
My imaginary friend Marcia stayed in my orbit
sharing secrets ’til I passed
some nebulous transit of age and she drifted,
unnoticed, away into space.
Yet poets still root around for fresh links.
Happy as pigs in shit or clams in deep water,
they continue to make meaning
compulsory, compulsively secreting
concentric circles of something
pearl-like around pain, then
presenting them to us.
Buddhists call that compassion,
which requires imagination,
which calls forth from the bench
If I squint hard at the moon,
I can see whatever it is, my friend,
that tonight you see there.
Go ahead: tell me your story.
I will tell you mine.
*Inspired metaphors, paranormal beliefs, conspiracy theories, and delusional episodes may all exist on a single spectrum, recent research suggests. The name for the concept that links them is apophenia.—Katy Waldman, “It’s All Connected,” Slate, Sept. 16, 2014.
** Carl Jung variously defined synchronicity as an “acausal connecting (togetherness) principle,” “meaningful coincidence,” and “acausal parallelism.”–Wikipedia