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Making meaning from the meaningless

“You’re drawing liiiiines” Mr D hissed in my ear and the hairs on my neck stood to attention. My art tutor was notorious for scaring his students. But by the time we’d reached the sixth form, (years 12 &13 in new money,)  we’d become accustomed to most of his eccentricities. 

When he broke the silence of a studious classroom, leaping from the floor, crashing onto a desk in the window and exclaiming: “I thought I heard a wren!”, we were momentarily startled but took it in our stride. 

But his obsession with not drawing lines, puzzled us.

“Does that apple have a line around it? Does your head? No. So, why are you drawing lines around everything? They don’t exist. Stop drawing them!”

It took some getting your head around. I still struggle, to be honest. 

The human tendency to see patterns—both where they exist, and where they don’t—is innate. We seek, we notice and we invent connections between events to help us to make sense of the world. Even as children, drawing instinctively and without instruction, we look for lines and patterns to define our world.

Creating stories, spotting patterns, making meaning

Do you see animals in clouds, faces in the pattern of your wallpaper, or Jesus in the burn marks of your toast? You’re not alone. Pareidolia, the tendency to see shapes and faces in inanimate or abstract patterns is a pretty common. It’s probably the best known form of apophenia, the human tendency to see patterns or connections that don’t exist in reality—and to fabricate meaning between unrelated things.

From ancient Greek myths that told of a sun god who pulled the sun across the sky in a chariot—to sun-eating Chinese dragons, Viking wolves and Hindu demons that explain the occurrence of an eclipse, we have been putting together two and two and making 49 for a very, very long time. 

Some of these stories are cumulative. As successive generations shared the same stories, they added to them. They became the social glue that bound tribes together in collective belief. In time, religious authorities took responsibility for controlling these stories and with them, they took control of collective understanding of the world and the meaning of inexplicable events. They told people what the rising of the sun, the patterns of weather, an eclipse, etc. meant.

You’re a curious creature. You can’t help it. You see an anomaly and search for an explanation. Or you encounter something new and query its meaning.

You don’t always have the information necessary to answer the questions you ask. But that doesn’t stop you from doing so. Don’t have the data to complete your story? No problem. Choose your own hero. Pick your villains, and your supporting cast. Select whatever information fits your existing narrative or social convention and squeeze it to fit. Make your own meaning.

The storytelling problem

“We have … a storytelling problem. We’re too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” 

— Malcolm Gladwell

We humans make two kinds of errors when spotting patterns—

  • False positive errors where we see something that’s not there. 
  • False negative errors where we fail to see something that is there.

The number of available communication tools is growing at an incredible rate. As is volume of information or “content” we consume. But our capacity to filter and assess the quality of content isn’t growing. As a result, stories based on poor data explode and rapidly overtake considered, peer-reviewed, science-based, balanced but unsexy stories. Sometimes with devastating consequences. 

In Samoa in 2019, the “anti-vaxxer” movement took a long discredited story about a link between vaccination and autism and ran with it—boosted by a potent combination of tragedy, misinformation and our easy acceptance of unearned confidence.

During an earlier vaccination program, two babies died after being given the wrong medication. Understandable concern amongst Samoans that the vaccine was to blame was fuelled by one very powerful social media influencer. A woman who made a virtue of her own ignorance—and sold quite a bit of snake oil in the process.  

A sharp drop off in vaccination rates followed. And then a measles outbreak that affected over 5,000 people (10% of the population).  79 people died of an entirely preventable disease, including 48 children. 

Sometimes, it’s not only the false negative errors that are dangerous. 

The things we “don’t really have an explanation for” includes things that no one has an explanation for. But they also include things where an explanation is known and understood—but maybe not by you. And that’s fine. So long as you know your limits and don’t promote false stories with potential consequences for entire populations.

So why do we do it?

Why do we look for and find patterns where none exist? Why are we so quick to invent stories and make meaning from the meaningless?

The ability to spot patterns is key to your survival. If you fail to recognise a tiger in the grass, or to put together a broken front door, missing laptop and unfamiliar voices upstairs, and see the story that there’re burglars in your house, you could end up in a bit of a sticky situation. 

But the energy taken to assess every situation rationally takes a long time. So you overcompensate. You “thin-slice” the mounds of data you’re faced with every day and take short cuts to make meaning out of the chaos. Sometimes, the connections you make are correct. Sometimes not. 

Thin-slicing based on solid experience and intuition allows you to make shrewd decisions without deliberation. But uninformed intuition leads to bad decisions. You assume a causal link between things that are not linked and fill the narrative gap with whatever comes to hand. You confirm your existing bias by cherry-picking what fits. 

We all underestimate variability in data. The data of life is infinite. Mind boggling. Too much for us to accept. It’s much easier to tell false stories and make simple connections that don’t exist. 

Story is a way for you to create a sense of stability and to reduce uncertainty.  It’s a way to understand the world and your experiences. And to understand yourself. It’s a tool for connection—for binding you to others—and for your survival.

Shared stories provide structure, security and a level of certainty in an uncertain world. In the past, questioning the story meant questioning the tribe and risking rejection. Rejection meant loss of home and companionship, loss of shelter, loss of food-source. It meant death. 

Overcoming “narrative apophenia”

It’s no wonder that we chose to believe the ridiculous.

But the world has changed significantly since the days when small tribes were dependent on each and every member for their literal survival. It may not feel like it, but you can and do survive the loss of friendships, family and social connections.

I’m not advocating a wholesale abdication from your social circles every time you disagree with someone. But if the stories you’ve been telling yourself are no longer serving you, the consequences of challenging and changing your stories—of re-writing your beliefs and your identity, don’t have to be life threatening. 

These behaviours are hard wired into us. It’s not easy to just switch them off. Even the most self-aware of us still take short cuts to stories that are downright harmful and see patterns that don’t exist. But being aware of the tendency is at least a start. And it’s something we can consciously practice as we examine and deconstruct our own default stories.

And there may be stories you’re telling yourself that are harmful. Are you seeing patterns that don’t exist?

Tips and ideas

  1. Honestly, you may never know for sure if the connections in your story are accurate. Just being aware of your own tendency to seek meaning can help you step back when necessary. 
  2. The process of unraveling and selecting elements of your story is an exercise in self-awareness. Be mindful of your own biases. And be ready to discover a few you didn’t know you had. 
  3. Ask yourself where your stories and biases come from. Do they really hold water? Are they actually, rationally, with a bit of distance and thought, totally freakin’ ridiculous and are you now questioning your whole upbringing and your world view?
  4. How have your biases contributed to the messy parts of your story? 
  5. What biases are you consistently trying to confirm in your stories?
  6. Don’t be inhibited or embarrassed by your biases. Explore them. Own them. Figure out where they come from. These journeys of discovery make great stories in themselves!
  7. Look at the stories other people tell and consider how they differ from your own. Where do you diverge? Where do you think those differences come from? What are they seeing differently? 
  8. Don’t let anxiety about your own biases or of being told you’re wrong keep you from speaking. No story is perfect. No story is “right”. Just find what’s right for you. Find your story and tell it your way.
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