Secret meaning of symbols
Why do people who are not Christian believe that two bits of wood, crossing at right angles, can have any power?
(Yes, I said people who are NOT Christian.)
We admit it, we're guilty. We are guilty of persuading lots of honest and decent people (like you) to waste precious time trying to decipher puzzling symbols that have been sent to us.
To create meaning from meaningless random squiggles is natural, but a waste of mental energy. Yet that's what we all do. It's even reinforced by religion, which teaches us that nothing is pure chance because God makes everything for a purpose.
Seeing a Smiley face spontaneously appear in a latte may be no more than slightly amusing but we could, if interested, set ourselves on a quest and dismiss common sense to prove our conviction that the Smiley face means something really important. That's apophenia, folks, and yes, God made that too.
Apophenia is connected to our creativity, without which you wouldn't be able to read this page and I wouldn't have been able to write it.
Pattern recognition and interpretation is vital for humans, as well as other creatures. Without it mankind would have starved to death being unable to recognise which berries were safe to eat. How else could we recognize which other creatures we should try to reproduce with? Cognition is one of the useful gifts we take for granted.
All creatures do it – including one-celled microorganisms, viruses, and even inorganic compounds and atoms. However, humans are probably the only creatures who have an extended cognition ability enabling us to assign deeper nuance to signs.
Sometimes we are too creative, causing problems such as phobias, hypochondria, superstition, 'recognizing' things which aren't there. We see the face of Jesus in the Turin Shroud and in melted cheese, even though none of us knows what Jesus looked like.
Haven't we met somewhere before?
Advantage is taken of our creativity by shops selling watches and clocks, who traditionally display them with a smiling face at 10 minutes to 2.
And consider the front of a car; it doesn't take too much effort to 'recognize' the two headlights, radiator grille and bumper as eyes, nose and mouth. Car makers are not only aware of this but design their cars so that the 'face' looks cute or aggressive, playful or serious, depending on their target customers. Traffic police do not drive road-warrior Hummers for their fuel efficiency.
The face of Mona Lisa on this simple cross lacks expression. Its interpretation and importance is whatever we want it to be. If we decide it has no meaning, then it has no meaning.
Dan Brown's 2003 mystery-detective novel The Da Vinci Code increased interest in decoding symbols and you don't need to be Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu to see the deep meaning of things.
Let's take, for example, the logo of a church in the Algarve. Initially we couldn't work out the significance of the four black birds. Somebody even jokingly suggested (via our puzzle page Mystery #34) that it may be a Beatles Cross
And if indicating that the 60's pop group might have been a Christian band offends you, we are sorry. A negative reaction to seeing a cross superimposed on a photo of the Beatles, is yet another example of apophenia.
As mentioned at the top of this page, many curious symbols we see most likely have no meaning at all. However, there is one cross where the meaning is not only well understood, but of utmost importance for us all. See Meaning of the Cross.
In simple words, apophenia is a false-positive; an erroneous connection we make to something when there is no real justification for doing so. If twigs fall from a tree and form Greek letters of a famous person, we believe it is a meaningful 'sign'. We don't know what the meaning is, but we convince ourselves there is one so we search diligently for it anyway. Our minds, being human, just cannot accept the concept of randomness.
Actually, seeing a Smiley face in a latte is important. It means we are human. We perceive faces in inanimate objects because our brains are programmed for facial recognition. It also means we have the gift of sight – and the wealth to waste on luxuries, such as latte.
It worked out quite well for Emperor Constantine – see Chi Rho
Dolphins don't smile. The smile you see on captive dolphins does not show their stress. (See also the Brendan Cross)
This related visual phenomenon called pareidolia. An example was the World Trade Center's twin towers, which caused paranormal interest in their resemblance to "11". However, in certain circumstances the experience can result in an epiphany, which provides genuine insight into the true nature of things that really exist. This is recognizing something through our hearts, rather than just through our eyes.