5X5 Episode 38

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5X5 Episode 38
24th September 2008

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5X5 37 5X5 39
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Mike Lacelle
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Show Notes
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Skepticism 101 - Pareidolia[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and our continuing series on Skepticism 101. The topic for this week is pareidolia. Now, pareidolia is the tendency to see a familiar pattern in essentially random visual stimuli.

R: And that can be as an image or sound. Usually we refer to it when we're talking about Virgin Marys in grilled cheese sandwiches or on overpasses or any number of other places. It's just a evolutionary quirk that our brain developed in order to survive.

S: Yeah, our brains primarily function through pattern recognition, that's how we recognize and store information. So when we see visual stimuli our brain does a lot of processing of the visual information that comes in. It tries to find something familiar, something that we can recognize, and then it enhances those things, those aspects of the image that reinforce what we think we're seeing. The brain will connect the dots even when that connection is not really there. It will emphasize the features and deemphasize things that don't fit and then the image just sort of pops in your mind. So you might be looking at a cloud or the side of a mountain or the bark on a tree or an oil stain on the side of the road and then your brain will try to match an image to the randomness and it'll see a face and then the eyes will become more prominent, your brain will make a shadow into a chin et cetera until it looks like a face. And then once you see that image, it's hard not to see it. Then it really gets fixed in place.

B: Plus it's easy to understand how the selective pressure for such an ability would be important. As we're evolving and somebody's walking in the woods; the person that was able to see say the tiger crouching, you know, behind the tree or behind the leaves, if you could spot that, if you could create that mental image of the predator from scanned visual stimuli, then bam then you had a survival advantage. But nowadays of course in our complex cultures and society where we're being bombarded ever day by images and so many different things, that we're kind of like in pattern-recognition overdrive and pareidolia is present everywhere you look.

M: Rebecca mentioned that there's auditory pareidolia as well. A couple of examples of that are EVP or electronic voice phenomena and backmasking, where people hear sounds when playing an audio track backwards. And don't they use pareidolia in the Rorschach inkblot test to help determine aspects of people's personality?

S: Yeah, well the Rorschach test isn't really legitimate per se, it can be used as part of, as a therapy technique but it doesn't really fit the core claim that you get an insight into the person by what they say. It hasn't really been validated.

B: But it is pure pareidolia, I mean that's exactly what it is.


S: It is pure pareidolia. That's right.

E: Well sometimes entire pseudoscientific stories and legends have been built solely on pareidolia. For instance the face on Mars.

S: The face on Mars is perhaps the most famous, I think, bit of pareidolia.

E: Where back in 1976 the Viking orbiter was taking pictures of the Martian surface and of course one of the images came back with what is this face looking like what they claim is a large structure built there in the face of a man. And then of course many years later when a more sophisticated orbiter and new pictures of the exact same structure was taken, it was clearly just a natural formation of rock. But a whole legend arose from this and still continues to this day, even though it's been debunked.

R: We've also had Big Foot on Mars too which happened pretty recently. That was probably just a weird rock with a shadow. But it looks a lot like Big Foot.

E: It sure did - swinging arm and all.

S: Pareidolia is interesting because it's one of those things that everyone experiences, we all see faces in clouds. We all see faces and the reason why we see faces, by the way, is because that's the most familiar image to humans. We have a large part of our cortex, our visual association cortex, dedicated to recognizing faces so it's no surprise that that's the pattern that our brain most enthusiastically searches for. But we all have that experience, we understand that there really isn't a face in the bark in the tree; there really isn't an animal in the clouds - it's just seeing a pattern on randomness and yet if the pareidolia image has some kind of significance, if it has religious significance or pseudoscientific or paranormal significance, then suddenly people claim that it's real. That Mary really did appear on the side of a bank as opposed to it being just pareidolia. But why not believe then that Kermit the Frog really did appear on Mars, or that Homer Simpson really appeared on Mercury? They're no different. The only difference is that one has a cultural or psychological significance that people want to latch on to. But understanding the power and the nature of pareidolia helps dispel those illusions.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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