Unrelated correlations – an example of apophany

Trigger Warning // Mentioned death of a loved one, pet death, mental health issues

Sometimes, the brain will link things that are rationally unrelated. This is something I have not seen discussed before with regards to autism. Until quite recently, I thought it was a personal quirk but conversations with other autistics show a pattern that is not as emergent in neurotypicals.

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Let me illustrate with an personal example: For years (and still to a smaller degree), I believed I was directly killing people with my thoughts. This sounds ridiculous to most people. So how did it occur?

When I was 8 years old, I had a nanny named Margaret that looked after me whilst my parents were working. I remember her dreadlocks and the adventures she took me on – including the dangerous ones and how she would protect me when my family received death threats. One evening (I remember the specific day quite clearly – it was the last game my country played in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June) – I wondered what life would be like without her. She was highly involved in my childhood – I imagined how different things would be. I went to sleep wondering this. The next morning, we found out that she had died in a car crash. Naturally, I was extremely upset. A part of me felt guilty for the night’s thoughts.

A couple of years later, I lay awake wondering what it would be like if my bird was gone – we were a close pair and I adored her (I will discuss animals in a future post). When I woke up the following morning, she was dead. This happened three times in total – the same thought process followed by death. Twice was enough for me – I thought I was the cause of death – that these events were related.

I was truly and thoroughly convinced that I was killing people by thinking about life without them. I blamed myself for their deaths. I believed that they would have lived out their lives peacefully if it weren’t for me thinking about their deaths. I thought I had done the worst thing you could do to someone. It wasn’t true, of course, but I fully believed it with all of my guilty young heart.

My experience is not unique. I know someone who became convinced that their mental breakdowns were killing their friends – a similar story to mine. I saw an example of this when I watched Atypical (a rather problematic show but that is a matter for a different post). In one episode on Casey’s (the sister’s) birthday – Sam (the autistic brother) had a ritual that he had to follow. He was absolutely determined that this was a fixed event. The ritual getting waylaid led to extreme stress for everyone. Later in the episode, it was revealed that a few years prior to this, they had missed the ritual on a particular day and his pet tortoise had died. So, in his mind – the ritual kept the tortoise alive – there was a connection.

A less potent example was my conviction that if we drove up a certain street, my event/family meeting would be cancelled- although this one held true for almost every scenario. These beliefs dotted my life quite frequently.

It is as if when something bad happens at the same time as another event- my brain cannot separate the two – a classic manifestation of cause-effect bias.

That’s the thing with autism. We tend to see patterns in things-it is one of our strengths, but sometimes these patterns are just circumstantial. They don’t mean anything. It took a very long time for me to understand this. This can happen to anyone – it is a natural part of how our brains work but my experience is that it is more potent in autistic people.

We have to actively remember that correlation does not imply causation – especially with traumatic events.

I am still not entirely convinced that I wasn’t killing people – despite the fact that I have had thoughts like this again and the people involved are still alive and well. I still panic and try to redirect these musings to anything else. My friend is still afraid to be in a mentally bad space and checks on all their friends afterwards. I will not drive up that particular street if I am on my way to something I enjoy. These things can have an active effect on our lives.

I have told very few people about this because the general reaction I have received is: “Those are just superstitions – it makes no sense to believe that.” Those people are right to a degree – it isn’t necessarily logical despite the fact that I am usually a logical person. However, it is horribly real to me and acknowledging it aloud was the first step to working through it.

So what do I do about it now?

The technique that works for you might be completely different to mine – each situation is unique. With the case of believing I was killing people – the best strategy was to note those thoughts as they appeared and write them down. My solution was to take that pattern-finding brain of mine and use it to retrain myself.

Every time I had a thought similar to this, I would write it down (usually immediately starting to mentally ‘yell’ other thoughts to block it out). When the person did not die – I had a record of the event. I started to establish a new thought pattern and used these written notes as my proof to do so. My conviction turned from “if I think about this they will die” to “if I think about this for more than 10 seconds then they will die” until, eventually, I had convinced myself that they would be fine regardless of my thoughts. This worked because the thoughts inevitably occur – as thoughts do. By capturing them, I could fully analyze them.

Even so, it took years to allow myself to think about it. I still redirect my thoughts sometimes and check in with my friends immediately.

I think that if I had worked up the confidence to speak to someone about this earlier – it might not have entrenched itself so firmly in my mind.

Now that I recognize that I easily form these patterns, I have learnt to think them through more carefully and realise they are coincidental. It is an active process of choosing not to believe what my brain is saying.

I thought about how I wanted to conclude this post for a while and was not able to come up with a perfect answer. I just want people to be aware that this can happen. If you related to the above stories – know that you are valid and there are others like you. It is real to us in many ways.

Thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “Unrelated correlations – an example of apophany

  1. Yes, I certainly identify with similar thoughts, which I have always known were superstitious & felt too shamefaced to admit them to anyone. But:
    1) causation can not be proved anyway – only ‘constant correlation’. I have studied Philosophy of Science for many years … ref. Hume & Popper on causation.
    2) superstitions, rituals like religious repetitions of prayers (eg rosaries) & even voodoo & ‘magic’ among neo-pagans etc exist worldwide, in all countries, belief systems & cultures.
    It seems to me that this is an all-pervasive human tendency, & not specific to autism.
    All religions have developed systems, with neatly numbered &/or patterned lists of proclamations, from Commandments to Noble Truths to steps in spiritual development eg the Kabbalah & Freemasonry etc.
    So while I do identify with your piece, it seems that this natural way of lapsing into over-pattern-making is endemic to all of humanity.

    Like

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