Apophenia - what's the one thing the SAS have in common with actors?

Patterns in trivia

You wouldn't think actors had much in common with the SAS, would you? Apart from a sense of the dramatic, though in the SAS's case they back it up with a bit more than a vodka and tonic and a moan about how their agent just isn't getting them the right auditions. But there is one other thing shared by the two groups of people, and it's an example of a weird thing our brains engage in called ‘apophenia'.

Apophenia - what's the one thing the SAS have in common with actors?

The word ‘apophenia' was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, a neuropsychologist who defined it as an ‘unmotivated seeing of connections' which gave ‘the specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness'. He was talking about it in the bad sense, when it leads to psychotic problems - paranoia, for instance. You make all sorts of connections where they don't really exist, and end up believing that the world is out to get you. But since Conrad's time the word has become more widely used, referring to apophenia in healthy people too. Which is a good job, because trivialists thrive on apophenia. Seeing connections where they don't really exist is at the heart of how trivia gets swapped.

Take actors and the SAS, for example. It's a theatrical tradition that you never say ‘good luck' before going on stage (‘break a leg' is the common substitute). And what's the one thing the SAS never say before embarking on a mission? Yep, you guessed it - ‘good luck'. A conversation between two trivia-lovers might lead to one of them passing that information on. That's one of the joys of such conversations - within seconds you can be light-years away, talking about a completely new subject that's linked to the last by just one tiny yet fascinating tangent. First marriages, for instance. One of you might mention that Denis Thatcher's first wife was also called Margaret (yes, there was another Margaret Thatcher, before the future-PM became his second wife). The other, apophenia-gland all a-twitch, will be reminded of Evelyn Waugh's first marriage. The woman who became his bride had as her first name ... Evelyn. Evelyn Waugh was married to Evelyn Waugh.

Or it could be films. There are two Dustin Hoffman films, for instance, that end with him sitting on the back seat of a bus. The Graduate is the obvious one. I'll give you until the end - the asterisk to be exact - to think of the other. Or the conversation could lead somewhere else from The Graduate. One of you could mention that the poster for the film featured not Anne Bancroft's legs, as you were led to believe, but those of a leg model (who just happened to be Linda Gray, the woman who would one day play Sue Ellen in Dallas). In this case the tangent would be ‘secret substitutions', and the other person would be pointing out that Ursula Andress's voice in Dr No was completely overdubbed by another actress.

You're probably wondering at this point why the picture accompanying this blog post is of a pizza. Well, sometimes the pattern can be one of opposites. Ringo Starr, you see, has never eaten a pizza. Shane Warne, on the other hand, only eats pizzas when he goes out to dine, often embarrassing those he's with by forcing upmarket restaurants to cook him one. Perhaps those facts stick in the mind because in each case it's exactly what you'd expect of the person involved - but there they now are, cross-referenced in the mind as twins of trivia. Apophenia has worked its magic again.


* Midnight Cowboy




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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.