Occultism and Apophenia

Ever hear of apophenia? It is the perception of apparently meaningful connections derived from otherwise unrelated phenomena or data. Taken to its worst extreme, apophenia can be found amongst schizophrenics who believe they see patterns that support their delusions. Many such people report delusions of reference, where everything in the environment somehow becomes related to them personally, such as the television giving them direct messages. A more specific form of apophenia is pareidolia, which is the perception of significance derived from a vague and random stimulus, such as an image or sound.

Apophenia isn't limited to those with a thought disorder—it can exist in the “normal” cognitive range as well, with some evidence indicating that the lateral temporal lobes are somehow involved with the effect.[1] Further, high levels of dopamine might also play a part, especially when the person is predisposed to seeing a pattern.[1] It doesn't have to be religious in nature…who hasn't seen a face within a parking meter or tree bark? Indeed, this mechanism has long been a key to our survival as a species…it helps us recognize people, common objects, and landscape features. As we have become more sophisticated, it has allowed us to ascertain more subtle patterns, such as those found in the physical and social arenas (e.g. chemistry and language, respectively). It is a very powerful tool that continues to serve us well, not only in terms of survival, but also in the realms of both science and art.

A key human drive is the need for meaning, to make life about more than simple survival. Religion, in part, tries to serve this function, and for most people does so successfully. A much smaller but still sizable percentage of people look to occultism to fulfill their need for meaning, and for many years I was included in this number. Now that I've moved past occultism, I can look back and try to examine my experience with perhaps some objectivity.

One of the core mechanisms of occultism is the induction of apophenia, which it does via several conceptual models, such as Kaballah and the Tree of Life. By plugging in otherwise unrelated ideas and objects into such a model, a sense of meaningful connection is easily and quickly created. Of course, usually only already-meaningful ideas are plugged in, such as serpent or immortal, rather than less-meaningful things, like toilet or keyboard. The point here being that the model itself, when being used in this way, doesn't create the initial meaning, but provides a sense of greater import and external agency. To be clear, this is not the only use of these models, but I'm just talking about one practice that I myself used and see others doing.

A feature of occultism is the promise of finding the Big Secret. Part of doing so can involve practices that use trance or imagination to create the experience of evoking spirits, invoking deities, or visiting ultra-terrestrial or non-material planes. However, much of the “information” that is gleaned from these experiences seems to be transmitted in the code of symbolism, which is then processed through conceptual models to provide a sense of understanding. As the Philips article points out, when people seek patterns in otherwise unrelated data, they will find them. And I can say first hand that the experience of this, of the sense of having discovered or been made privy to some deeper spiritual reality, is intensely satisfying.

In itself, I see no problem with this—it feels good and can, for a short time, fulfill the need for meaning. However, things get sticky when occultists begin assuming that what they've experienced connotes some kind of objective, external reality or change in themselves. It is especially problematic when the occultist is seeking experience to either confirm or create a belief of unique personal eminence, because he will inevitably find it. Practice improves the ability to create and retain complex patterns (especially when certain symbols are already in mind), promoting the sensation of increased understanding, and it is all too easy to develop a narcissistic attitude regarding one's superior “wisdom” and spiritual “knowledge”. The “I-know-something-you-don't-know” mindset is seductive and sadly common in the larger occult population; I succumbed to it myself for a time.

I will not say that occult practice cannot produce for some people a valuable and meaningful relationship between the occultist and the universe. When used to explore one's internal world, such practices can indeed produce useful psychological insight as well as develop useful skills, such as mindful discipline. Further, certain occult practices are excellent at promoting a sense of interconnection between all things, which can help develop the valuable awareness of being a meaningful part of culture and nature.

But when apophenia really sets in it can become counterproductive. One manifestation in occultism is the illusion of change at a distance, which is supported by the ability to invent connections between unrelated phenomena. Again, when ritual is done to prime the mind to act in desirable ways, it can be beneficial (e.g. doing a “get a job” ritual that results in a calmer and more confident demeanor during an interview). But when one believes that objective change is possible at a distance (in space or time), and comes to depend upon it, then it can result in neglecting one's actual ability to be an agent of change in life.

I believe that the stereotype of the occultist who is socially awkward, behind on rent, and works at a miserable job exists for a reason. It is probably common for people who feel ineffective and inadequate to be the most attracted to occultism, which promises great power and wisdom. And because of our natural ability to seek patterns, almost anyone can “succeed” at it. When this is done as a platform leading to an increased sense of agency, then occultism can be beneficial—when it leads to narcissism and a belief that the powers and knowledge are objectively real, then it can too easily exacerbate the underlying problems.

I do think that occultism in general can provide a marvelous metaphorical language. This is likely why many folks of an artistic bent are also attracted to occultism. Also, we want to feel special, and occultism makes it easy to feel that way. But the occult universe has no reality outside of the mind. It is a human construction which largely uses the language, perspectives, and scientific understandings of people who lived centuries or millennia ago. This gives occultism an exotic, substantial aura that is attractive to many. Also, certain occult tools, such as Tarot, can provide fantastic projective tools for digging out deeper elements of the personality making them available for examination.

On the whole, I've come to the conclusion that occultism has limited utility in developing a mature sense of self and meaning. While it can play a beneficial transitional role, as it did for me, in the end occultism's tendency to induce apophenia prevents seeing actual patterns in the environment and within the self, overcoming any issues of inadequacy, developing personal agency, and living a fully genuine life. Moreover, occultism doesn't solve real problems, whether global, social, or personal.

I believe we can borrow from the tradition of occultism to help provide some romance and adventure that can give spirituality a sense of aliveness, depth, and vibrancy. Also, the idea that spiritual development requires refining the ability to see clearly plus the willingness to explore ideas and experiences that are not immediately apparent is certainly a valuable one. But it is no longer useful or reasonable to insist that there is a Big Secret out there whose discovery is only awaiting the right awareness of the Grand Pattern. The old adage says it best—life is not a mystery to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.