“Everywhere I see them there, I stop and stare at patterns… ”

A big part of what makes Lost so successful (and at the same time so hit-and-miss) is the way it doles out mysteries and secrets. Hidden clues and cryptic statements are the bread and butter of the show, leading some to frustration at never getting answers, while others dig deeper and deeper into the material to find the truth. The writers and producers of the show have gone out of their way to encourage theorizing, pattern recognition, clue-spotting, and solving the puzzles constantly thrown to the audience. Why does this show fire people up so much; capable of turning the most mundane conversation into wide-eyed frantic speculation on who Jacob is, or what the deal is with that Black Smoke Monster? It’s because Lost is one gigantic apophenia machine.

Apophenia is a fancy psychological term that refers to finding patterns in seemingly meaningless or unrelated data. There is a great deal of this going on in Lost, the Numbers being only one of the most obvious examples. Deliberate connections were made between the different castaways in flashbacks, such as Locke and Sawyer’s shared history with the same man. The production team intentionally adding in patterns leads to the hunt for more and more patterns, going deeper and deeper into minutia. Therein lies the danger of finding too much order: connecting things that are completely unconnected, or only incidentally related.

There seems to be a fine spectrum of pattern-recognition, where apophenia is classed as a disorder (or a Type I Error) and can lead to psychosis, and the other side of the spectrum leading to invention, creativity, and discovery. On the one hand, the Skeptic’s Dictionary goes so far as to define all paranormal and supernatural events as apophenia. Another skeptic’s analysis presents many examples of apophenia sliding into madness. Familiar stories can be found among many conspiracy theorists, especially when the one proposing the theory happens to be at the center of it as well. The visual subset of apophenia, called pareidolia, is often the true cause of religious visions, Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, and other equally bizarre sightings. In Lost, the producers seem to encourage this, putting clues in quick flashes that can’t quite be seen but for the pause button on a TiVo (Christian Shepard’s eye in the cabin window, for example), but it has led to fans finding meaningful connections and images even in accidental prop goofs, cloud patterns, even letters in the waves on the ocean. This is sometimes known as the Confirmation Bias, or as Robert Anton Wilson put it in Prometheus Rising, “What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.” In other words, whatever you believe, or whatever pattern it is you are searching for, you’ll find it.

The possibility of discovering patterns that don’t exist should not, however, dissuade anyone from looking for the patterns to begin with. It can be useful to see how history connects to itself, despite being a collection of unrelated people and events, as in James Burke’s television series called Connections. In the search for connections, the universe starts to take on a certain kind of structure of its own. The notion that the world is a
complex and deeply interconnected mind is found behind nearly all
mystical practices. In Hermeticism, it is called The All; in Hinduism the piece of god within everyone is the atman; in Buddhism the doctrine is of Interpenetration. One of the more useful metaphorical illustrations of interpenetration in particular is Indra’s Net, which then bleeds over into physics in the holographic universe theory. In such a reality, everything actually is connected to everything else, something also hinted at in Bell’s Theorem of non-locality. This makes finding patterns in random noise much easier, which is what divination is for. The methods of divination are nearly endless, all of them taking input from random phenomena of the world and interpreting meaningful results. One of the better-known ancient divinatory practices is the I-Ching, which decorates the outer edge of the DHARMA logo. Of course, there’s an extreme to this end of the spectrum as well, where one falls into the belief that imposing a pattern on the universe is just as easy as finding one; or even that one creates one’s own universe.

In another view entirely, both sides are equally illusory. Finding order where there’s only chaos, or finding chaos where there’s only order; neither one is the full truth. “Reality is the original Rorschach.” Profound stuff? Actually it’s Discordianism. Really, I agree with this comment that what really counts is the meaning you assign to any given perceived structure. There’s room for both sides of the coin, both on the psychological level and the practical magic level.

As a mystery show that seems to include references to practically everything everywhere, Lost is highly susceptible to false-pattern recognition. This is, however, part of the narrative structure, to give hints and red herrings at every turn. So many narrative themes, leading to so many theories. What to do, but connect everything to everything! We’ll know the truth by the end of Season Six–or at least, we can hope.