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What is Pareidolia?

This is the name for a well-known condition that we all experience: where our brains recognise shapes of faces, bodies, etc., in a place where we know they can’t be – purely because, from birth, our brains were taught to recognise faces and then people and bodies – it’s a baby survival technique!

Most people have never heard of pareidolia but nearly everyone has experienced it! Anyone who has looked at the moon and spotted two eyes, a nose and a mouth has felt the pull of pareidolia.  Like picking a face out of a knotted tree trunk or finding zoo animals in the clouds.   

The thing about Pareidolia is that, it’s not so much what we want to see, more the way our mind interprets something. If you see a shape, your mind is going to try to make something intelligible out of it, so that it can recognise that *something*. For an excellent video about the way our brains are very easily fooled, please view http://vimeo.com/85142018 it’s 43 minutes long but well worth watching to the end.

It is thought that pareidolia is a side effect of the human brain needing to very quickly recognise certain objects such as human faces or bodies – we have more experience with actual objects than random patterns that just look like those objects. For example, the shapes composing a face are more likely to correspond to a face than random patterns, so random patterns that are close to faces are interpreted actually as faces as the brain mistakes them for the real thing. Since humans are highly social and many of our interactions rely on gauging other’s moods by tiny hints in their facial expressions very quickly, most people are acutely receptive for such patterns. The emotions people can read from faces can also be exploited this way. Clock faces in shops will be permanently at “ten past ten” because this is a happy face, and never at “twenty past eight” because this is a sad face.

Faces on Mars

The Face in Mars photo from 1976

and a more recent close-up.

face in the clothing

Here’s an interesting picture of someone’s clothes.  Look carefully -what can you see?

Now imagine if you woke up in your bedroom, with just the light shining through the curtains and noticed it for the first time – you’d be pretty scared – but there’s nothing paranormal about it!

It seems I’m not alone in wanting to show people how easily deluded they are.  Please have a look at Kev’s blog regarding pareidolia:


RationalWiki has a useful page about the topic at http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pareidolia with numerous examples to refer to.

Hope you can view the pictures I’ve included at https://www.pinterest.com/altissimma/pareidolia/

In a similar vein are optical illusions. Have a look at these as see how easily our eyes and brains are fooled!

distractify.com – mind-blowing-optical-illusions


www.dose.com -15-Optical-Illusion-GIFs-Designed-To-Make-You-Feel-Like-A-Lunatic

Edit 26th May 2016.  Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Not pareidolia, but just to prove that people are really very gullible, here’s one that made me laugh out loud today!

Visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week (24th May 2016) were fooled into thinking a pair of glasses set on the floor by a 17-year-old prankster was a post-modern masterpiece.

To test out the theory that people will stare at, and try and artistically interpret, anything if it’s in a gallery setting, Khayatan set a pair of glasses down and walked away. Soon, people began to surround them, maintaining a safe distance from the ‘artwork’ and several of them taking pictures.

The teen behind the hoax had similar success with a baseball cap and a bin.  You can read the full article from the link Pair of glasses left on the museum floor mistaken for an exhibit!  So you see, we are all susceptible to mis-interpreting what we see.  It’s easy to understand why the visitors to the post-modern exhibition thought they were an exhibit but, surely, exhibits in museums have plaques explaining what each exhibit is about. There wouldn’t have been anything nearby for them to read about this exhibit and you’d think someone might have put 2 and 2 together, picked them up and handed them to museum staff in case someone had dropped them earlier!

Edit 12th September 2016

Apophenia  I was not aware of this term but have discovered that this is the generic term relating to the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data. Some new terms have been coined to describe several types of ‘perception’:

Michael Shermer coined the word “patternicity” in 2008, defining it as “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”.

Shermer wrote in The Believing Brain (2011), that humans have “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency”, which he called “agenticity”.

In 2011, parapsychologist David Luke proposed that apophenia is one end of a spectrum and that the opposite behaviour (attributing to chance what are apparently patterned or related data) can be called “randomania”. He asserted that dream precognition is real and that randomania is the reason why some people dismiss it.

Besides Pareidolia, the other types of Apophenia are:-

In statistics and machine learning, apophenia is an example of what is known as overfitting. Overfitting occurs when a statistical model fits the noise rather than the signal. The model overfits the particular data or observations rather than fitting a generalizable pattern in a general population.

Gambler’s fallacy
Apophenia is well documented as a rationalisation for gambling. Gamblers may imagine that they see patterns in the numbers which appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels. One variation of this is known as the “gambler’s fallacy”.

Hidden meanings
Fortune-telling and divination are often based upon discerning patterns seen in what most people would consider to be meaningless chance events. The concept of a Freudian slip is based upon what had previously been dismissed as meaningless errors of speech or memory. Sigmund Freud believed that such “slips” held meaning for the unconscious mind, as used in his work ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.

Edit 28th October 2016 Audio Pareidolia

Today I found this wonderful Youtube video which is yet another example of how our brains are fooled.  In this instance it’s the belief that, when songs are played backwards, they convey satanic messages.    Please go and view Here’s to my sweet Satan.  The example comes from a website Reversespeech.com which I’m going to have to spend some time with!

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