Paranormal or Pareidolia?

Originally published in the Kelowna Courier, June 2011Kate Middleton Jelly Bean

by Blythe Nilson

During the incredible media coverage of the royal wedding in May, you may have seen the jelly bean bearing a splotch that enthusiasts claimed was the spitting image of Kate Middleton. The reason we see human figures in so many inanimate objects is that we are strongly programmed to recognize people, especially faces. If you draw two dots and a line below them, they will be readily interpreted as a face by almost anyone. Indeed, almost any pattern containing lines or features resembling a face will be noticed. This name of this phenomenon is pareidolia (par-ah-doh-lee-ah) and it belongs in the lexicon of every skeptic.

Understanding the brain’s drive to recognize faces and other patterns in almost anything helps one to realize how this psychological “feature” can fool you into believing that something is there when it isn’t. Most of us spent time as a children looking up into the clouds and spotting “pictures” of, well, pretty much anything. We see a lot of faces because of the way the brain processes information with a preference for facial expressions. If you have a religious bent you might see the devil in smoke, or the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. If you believe in aliens you might see faces on Mars or the moon because that is how the brain works. If you understand this process, you will be able to recognize when your (or someone else’s) brain is tricking you into seeing something that isn’t there.

Audio pareidolia is responsible for people “hearing things”. If you are old enough you will remember the “Paul is dead” urban legend of the 60s. Conspiracy theorists believed that Beatle Paul McCartney had been killed and replaced with a double. They alleged that if you played certain Beatles’ records backwards you would hear corroborating messages. Back then it was considered fun to play vinyl records backwards near the end of a party. If you are told what to hear before you listen, the phenomenon is enhanced and you will very likely hear what was suggested. This trick is a standard gimmick on the show Ghost Hunters. They play, always in the dark for some reason, static or scratchy sounds recorded on a substandard machine and then tell you what you should hear. Sometimes they play it twice so you can try even harder a second time. Audio pareidolia does the rest.

Visual pareidolia can be fun and there are hundreds of popular books and websites with images that take advantage of the phenomenon. Search for “pareidolia images” on the interwebs and you will find many examples. We also see animals in patterns and sometimes we interpret images as mythical creatures that we may have read or heard about. If you live in the Okanagan you might see Ogopogo in distant waves. If you live in England you might see ghosts and in Nepal perhaps you will have an encounter with a Yeti. When I was a little girl I was in a rowboat on Lake Okanagan when the adult in the boat, convinced that Ogopogo was approaching us, began to row furiously back to shore. She was too afraid to look back and was unconvinced when I said it was just some barrels floating in the distance. She told the story of her brush with the lake monster for years to come. The work of popular author and skeptic Benjamin Radford includes our beloved lake monster in chapter 7 of his book on lake monsters. He also writes about bigfoot, chupacabra, a relatively new Latin American monster, and many other cryptids.
If you want your own piece of pareidolia you don’t need to pay $28,000 for a slightly burnt sandwich, as someone actually did on eBay. With a little time you can find images of almost anything in mundane items. Perhaps you can profit from some of them, but be skeptical if someone tries to sell you a magical bean, even if it does sort of look like a princess.

• Phil Plait writes about this phenomenon in his Bad Astronomy Blog :

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