Epiphany, Apophony, and Creating Creativity

Truth is unimportant when looking for novelty and new forms of understanding.

Is all of perception an illusion? When letters become words with meaning,
and dots and dashes form faces, what is real and what is an invention?”
René Müri and Nicole Göbel (2020)

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Can an Idea Be True or False?

An epiphany is a sudden realization of a connection. An apophany is the sudden realization of a connection that is false. Is this a useful distinction?

We generally agree on what’s physically true, but who is to say what ideas are true? This is a problem because ideas form the basis for understanding, and we need new understanding. But regardless of an idea’s truth, once an idea is presented, it’s hard to contain it.

For this reason, those who govern—in as much as we can identify them—work to contain our thoughts. This is done by encouraging us to think according to established patterns. All of us individually, and the institutions around us, work to pattern, persuade, rationalize, constrain, set standards, and guide social discourse.

Laws limit our behavior, but have little effect on our ideas. When Donald Trump said that as a celebrity, it was acceptable for him to grope women, many men agreed. That does not make it right or legal, but those who condone this kind of thinking feel that’s beside the point.

There are things we can say and other things we can’t. The “N” word, the “F” word, hate speech, endorsements of violence, and other prohibitions limit our speech. At a more internal level, there are standards that guide our thoughts. Thinking “bad thoughts” is upsetting.

When I was 13, I would never think of saying cock or cunt in public, among my family, or with my friends. But cock and cunt are common words heard on YouTube videos aimed at children. My 13-year-old son sings such a song at the top of his lungs, and he thinks nothing of it.

Thinking is mostly controlled by limiting the associations we make. These associations develop from what we see and hear. This is why performance, art, and pop music are important. Rap, Punk, and Folk music are a means of free-speech that escaped institutional supervision. Institutionally marketed television, film, and media work to bring public thinking under control.

Parents decry violence in video games. They claim game violence makes youthful players more prone to violence. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the trend toward ultra violence in movies aimed at adults. For those over 18, the spread of the attitudes portrayed in these movies is not controlled at all.

I know of the violence in movies like Kill Bill, John Wick, and The Equalizer. I will not watch them and do not want to hear about them. A google search for violent movies returned titles I’d never heard of. Movies that portray extreme violence, including the killing and torture of animals and children.

The things we see and hear become the seeds for what we think. Once these ideas are in our minds, we discuss, portray, and associate things with them. And while some adults think children are more vulnerable than grownups, as a therapist, I see many emotionally vulnerable adults.

Gruesomely violent scenes from television shows are one of the most satisfying things for many adults…” Kulwant Singh (2023), from 11 Best Gory Violent Shows on Netflix Right Now

What is an Open Mind?

It is easier to define a closed mind. Closed minds follow approved lines of reasoning and subscribe to officially justified actions. To remain tightly closed, a mind should not entertain ideas that have not been approved. Most closed minds are weakly closed. They’ll think outside the box but not far, not clearly, and not actionably.

For the purposes of mind-control, it’s not the ideas that are important, it’s the associations you draw from them. For example, many people think about illegal actions, but they don’t take those actions because they have negative associations.

Controlled minds must conceive of forbidden ideas. If they could not conceive of inappropriate actions, then they could not recognize those thoughts in order to isolate and speak against them.

The openness of your mind is not determined by the ideas you have, it’s determined by associations you make. It’s more about the thoughts that are triggered in you by the actions of others, and less about your having those ideas yourself. This is why effective socialization requires the subtle training of associative thinking. The important questions are not, “What is patriotism?” or “What is morality?” They are what you associate with patriotism and morality.

Having defined a closed mind as one that has prescribed associations, an open mind is one that does not. And while the number of prescribed associations is actually rather small, it’s embodied in social protocol and written in our textbooks, the number of unapproved thoughts is infinite.

Training Associations is Operant Conditioning

Mind training, or operant conditioning, originates in the training of animals. It would be better described as associative conditioning. It’s the creation of automatic associations that will arise from predefined triggers. You control behavior by triggering emotions.

For example, children are conditioned to have patriotic thoughts in association with the mention of their country. In grade school, my class recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. By refusing, I thought I was escaping the training in mind control. I didn’t realize that the entire school enterprise was operant conditioning. The pledge was just one step in a continuous behavioral training exercise. Most people still have not figured this out, even as adults.

How do we limit unapproved thoughts? The primary way is by labeling the people who have these thoughts as abnormal and—if necessary—deficient, deranged, or dangerous. We stigmatize thoughts by stigmatizing the people who have them.

Once a person is convicted of a felony, they are no longer allowed to vote. The idea is that someone who thinks aberrant thoughts should not have a voice. If you are convicted of stealing a car, does that mean that you don’t understand who should represent you? The entire issue of a person’s rights comes down to how they’re expected to think.

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Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky

One of the striking differences between shamans and the rest of us is that shamans see faces all around them. This is related to basic shamanic cosmology, common across many cultures, of believing the natural world to be full of spirit entities.

In psychedelic, shamanic ceremonies, the shamans converse with these spirits. That is the shaman’s role. But even outside of these ceremonies, shamans see and converse with spirits. Religious people do something similar that they call prayer. The difference between the pious and shamans is that the pious don’t believe it’s normal to hear answers, while shamans do.

Although I try, I don’t see many faces in the trees. I do sometimes see many faces behind my closed eyelids. It depends on what I’m doing, but when it happens, I can see a nearly endless stream of faces. Sometimes they appear to speak, but I don’t hear them.

In my work in physics I have taken to talking to long-gone physicists, usually people I have known or spoken to. I ask them the questions that are on my mind and I squeeze answers out of them. I find this to be a valuable exercise. Richard Feynman is reticent. Eugene Wigner waxes philosophically. Steven Weinberg is useless.

These people are dead, but I have conversations with some who are still living. However, it’s the old, dead masters that are more interesting. These conversations are useful because they help define the limits of what other people have said and thought. This is important because it tells me what I need to go beyond. I know I need to have thoughts that no one else has had or would have had.

To be creative, you need to do this. It’s not enough to propose fanciful constructions, you must also bring forward those disciplined voices who will take apart the implausible. First, you must have creative ideas. Then, you must have discerning associations.

What you do not want is clarity, unity, or nonduality. The Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis triangle is a place to start, but you must also add novelty if you’re going to have any new thoughts.

My thought-circle starts with clarity, progresses to confusion, and settles in stalemate or defeat. I repeat this cycle like an old couple having a worn out argument, but I try to add something new each time. I try to concoct some new association, no matter how absurd.

If you want to make progress as an individual, or support our collective progress as a species, then you must encourage new associations. To do otherwise is to condemn our genetic line to obsolescence. Without new ideas, the evolution of human beings will follow that of other mammals, all of whose lines eventually die out. There are few exceptions, like sturgeons, wasps, and horseshoe crabs, but it’s not adaptability that has preserved them.

In Support of Apophenia

Apophenia (is) the tendency to experience events as meaningful, even when they shouldn’t be… ‘it refers to essentially anytime that you are seeing patterns in the world that don’t exist’… One specific form of apophenia, based on visual perception, is pareidolia: seeing faces where there are none, in inanimate objects such as electrical outlets or bell peppers.” —Shayla Love (2023), writing in Psyche

“The combination of high levels of pattern seeking and intelligence likely facilitates the generation and application of creativity and innovative thinking… in domains where creative pattern detection is advantageous, for example, among artists, inventors, and even psychics.” Scott Blain, et al. (2020).

All domains are potentially creative domains. Artists are just people whose creativity is non disruptive! The benefits of expanding one’s vision by including apophany benefits any endeavor that involves thinking. Not all endeavors involve thinking, as many of our activities are done by reflex.

One’s performance on a well-defined race course will not benefit from what are probably false distractions. In contrast, rock climbing requires constant pattern recognition and body arrangement. Here, seeing and exploiting unusual opportunities is critical.

Piloting a powered airplane largely relies on maintaining a structured environment, but piloting a soarplane, which has no engine and relies on air currents, introduces chaotic patterns of meteorology at large and small scales. In that case, seeing and exploiting unexpected patterns is critical.

Computer programming, biology, physics, chemistry, business, finance, and accounting—all things in which I’ve been involved—require a mix of structure and chaos. Regularity is often preferred, but this regularity can be apophanous. That is, what appears to be regular patterns can reflect general ignorance or your own misunderstanding. In each case, I’ve pursued patterns that are overlooked or unexplored.

“[I]f you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones… you may discover every name and word that you can imagine.” —Leonardo da Vinci (Müri & Göbel 2020)

In the context of personal relationships, the patterns can be elements in a confidence game. This is often the case in business where there are many deceptions and attempted exploitations. What might first appear as a delusion may, in fact, be an insight. The critical distinction is not what is factually true, but what is emotionally salient: what your intuition is telling you.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” — Richard Prior, comedian

Learning Creativity

Creativity escapes clear definition, but expanding one’s ability to associate patterns is part of it. The most common way to expand one’s patternicity is to expand one’s experience in the world. Improvements are not guaranteed because you may find yourself in similar situations recognizing the same patterns.

Some people say they have 20 years experience, when in reality, they have 1 year’s experience repeated 20 times.” —Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The schooling experience is often destructive both to students and teachers as it inculcates students using patterns that are poorly understood, and habituates teachers in the deception that they’re providing useful information. Both the parties are misled.

Great artists are those who communicated new patterns that engaged us. We’re told van Gogh’s creativity was partly because of his color blindness and partly because of his psychopathy. We stigmatize his creative process while indulging ourselves in his creative output.

Other artists, like Picasso and Calder, effectively managed their families, finances, and mental health. Because we don’t see their creative process, we’re blind to it and cannot reproduce it.

Writers like William S. Burroughs and Johann van Goethe embody both pathology and mental health. In Burroughs’ works, we see his fascination with the abnormal, and in Goethe’s, his fascination with love, death, sorrow, and suffering. It is the extended patterns they describe that continue to inspire us.

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say, ‘I want to see the manager.’” — William S. Burroughs

My formula for learning creativity is to engage what I don’t know and invent patterns in it. Sometimes these are fanciful creations, but in most cases—since I like things that work—I wrestle with my inventions to make them work. The best creations are those that are created with discernment. You can create anything in clay, but you must be careful when working with stone.

What annoys me most about writing is that I can fool myself into believing anything that’s grammatically correct is also good. Creating guided visualizations adds definition through imagery, cadence, and depth. Reason can be the most deceptive tool, as almost any argument can be justified.

The sciences appeal to both the most constrained thinkers and some of the most creative. It depends on the problem. The rewarding thing about scientific problems is that you can judge the utility of the result. Most inventions fail the test of utility, but the few that pass have an independent potential. That means that the future of those ideas is less in doubt, and they offer a structure that you can build on.

I have tried to speak to scientists about creativity and found no interest. I’ve talked to cognitive psychologists and psychiatrists about human value and spiritual meaning and could not evoke any comprehension. To them, I was describing false patterns.

Apophany, the creation of false patterns, is no different from epiphany, the recognition of true ones. It is only long after you’ve recognized patterns that you’ll know whether they’re true or false. In the most important cases, you may never know, and that’s not a bad thing. The ideas that escape definition are the most fertile.

“Which patterns or pictures are most evocative should tell us what switches us on most powerfully to create new perceptions and ideas. It should reveal the creative nature of mind.” —Richard Gregory (2000)

Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” —Pablo Picasso


Blain, S. D., Longenecker, J. M.,, Grazioplene, R. G., Klimes-Dougan, B., & DeYoung, C. G. (2021 Apr). “Apophenia as the Disposition to False Positives: A Unifying Framework for Openness and Psychoticism.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 129 (3): 279-292. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7112154/pdf/nihms-1554330.pdf

Gregory, R. (2000 Mar 2). “Reversing Rorschach.” Nature 404 (19). https://www.nature.com/articles/35003661

Love, S. (2023 Sep 19). “When the human tendency to detect patterns goes too far.” Psyche. https://psyche.co/ideas/when-the-human-tendency-to-detect-patterns-goes-too-far

Müri, R. & Göbel, N. (2020 Jul 15). “See faces in the clouds? It might be a sign of your creativity.” Psyche. https://psyche.co/ideas/see-faces-in-the-clouds-it-might-be-a-sign-of-your-creativity

Singh, K. (2023 Feb 24). “11 Best Gory Violent Shows on Netflix Right Now.” Cinemablind.com. https://www.cinemablind.com/gory-violent-shows-on-netflix/

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