When you learn what ‘fecundity’ means and now you are overflowing with ideas and your garden has plants growing, and you think about how fecund you and nature are. Or that time when you had learnt about gyascutuses and later that day your friend was telling you about gyascutuses, and you could not help but exclaim “I have literally just learnt about them”, but you also paused and wondered. And then finally you learn about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Also known as the frequency illusion, the phenomenon accounts for people learning new information and subsequently encountering it again and again. Baader-Meinhof was an ultra-left organisation operating in West Germany from the 70s through the 90s. The cognitive bias owes its name to a commentator of Pioneer Press, a Minnesota-based newspaper, who pointed out that after having learnt about the gang, they heard its name twice within 24 hours. This odd coincidence happened in 1994, and the phenomenon began to go by its ‘terrorist’ origin, until 2006 when Arnold Zwicky, Stanford linguistics professor, coined ‘the frequency illusion’. His paper Why are We so Illuded (2006) argues that the illusion stems from two psychological processes, namely selective attention and confirmation bias. According to Zwicky, one notices some and disregards other information. Once your attention has been pointed to a deadly flower, a name of a shoegaze band, the history of the colour ‘blue’, or patterns in Victorian clothing, such phenomena suddenly appear everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about them. Thus you confirm, you believe the brain is playing tricks, or destiny has something up its sleeve. It is all a sign, a sign from where you do not know, but it is a sign, the coincidence of hearing the same archaic word is far too out of the ordinary. Only that you forget to account for the fact that the information was there and will be there all along, and until your attention grasped it, you simply had not been noticing it.
Repetition, chances of an encounter, accidents and convincing coincidences. My personal case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is, unironically, learning about accidents and convincing coincidences. It is a puzzling predicament, studying the development of art history, or any history, analysing the blend of colours, the choice of structure, and not fully appreciating the essential accident, or the essential restriction, that produced what we now consider a ‘genius’.