PAREIDOLIA AND THE PARANORMAL: Is Your Mind Playing Tricks on You?

Why do our minds create or perceive something from nothing?  For example, the car behind you is smiling, but cars can’t truly smile…  Your toast contains the charred image of the Virgin Mary.  The sky is filled with clouds resembling different distinct shapes.  The green peppers above look frightened, but that is impossible for a vegetable.  None of these experiences are designed for us to perceive them as such, but it is our own minds that create these images.

What about seeing unexplained shadows in the corner of a room, or hearing a whisper within white noise? Can paranormal experiences such as these be explained by the same psychological phenomenon that enables us to see terrified faces in vegetables?  What is happening in our brains when this occurs, and how does it change the way we view everything around us?

For most, if a green pepper were cut open and reveal the image shown above, the reaction would be similar.  The person would recognize the frightened faces, maybe laugh a little, take a photo to post or send to his or her friends, knowing that others would recognize the faces as well.  According to the Collins English Dictionary, pareidolia is defined as “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist”.

There is a plethora of pareidolia instances that have made it to the news, including Virgin Mary toast, Adolf Hitler kettles, and a face on the surface of Mars.  Maybe you’ve heard of one of these, but never knew the name of the phenomenon.  The most common form of pareidolia is the perception of faces in inanimate objects.  There are many theories as to why pareidolia exists, including the brain constantly making sense of the lines and shapes around us, evolutionary advances against danger, or priming, which is the expectation of something based on past information and experiences.  Through all, one thing is for sure: that the brain is so well-wired to identify faces, an innate prior that every standard human possesses, that the context of this facial observation in objects goes even deeper than that.

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Electrical outlet unnaturally gazing to its right. Takahashi, 2013.

In a study from 2013, researchers observed that when individuals recognize a face in an object, there is an attentional shift based on whether or not the face is “gazing” in a certain direction!  This means that when the image of an outlet seems to be looking towards the left (technically its right), such as the one above, we can identify that it is looking in a certain direction.  Humans can also recognize emotions in non-human objects, such as a couple of frightened-faced green peppers.

A study conducted by Jiangang Lui and colleagues investigated the distinct neural bases of facial recognition.  By using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a network in the brain that fires strictly during face recognition, as opposed to letter recognition in their behavioral experiment, was discovered and changed the game for facial pareidolia.  This area of the brain called the fusiform face area plays a big role in both real face processing and illusory face processing.  It connects sensory information entering the eyes and being processed in the visual cortex, and priming from the prefrontal cortex, thus perceiving the image of a face.  What this means is that when we are in a situation in which the distant smudges on a mirror within a reportedly haunted house resembles a face, even though it may not make sense, we are primed to see this face just the way we comprehend a friend’s face.

Pareidolia is evident in not only the visual sense, but also the auditory sense. Hearing voices in white noise, formulating actual sentences based on whispers in the wind.  Is it possible that what we call “paranormal” is just our brains playing tricks on us?

Paranormal Pareidolia and the Brain

For centuries, paranormal occurrences have been documented by those who believe they have seen shadowy figures in the darkness or heard voices in the silence.  The popularity of reality paranormal investigation on television and in movies, such as Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted, supports the growing fascination of the unknown.  One can only imagine that the fascination stems from the ability to capture on camera what we cannot fully explain from personal experiences.  Maybe going in with the idea that these investigators will collect paranormal evidence has the viewer prepared to hear what they hear and see what they see.  Personally, if I go into a hotel that is reportedly haunted, my full attention is dedicated to anything out of the ordinary, and many others are the same.

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The cast of Ghost Hunters, which rakes in millions of viewers, also featured in a South Park parody episode. First image: WordPress. Second Image: Coolchaser

In a recent study, conducted by Michael Nees and Charlotte Phillips, auditory pareidolia is investigated by trying to discover how priming affects the perception of auditory stimuli in a paranormal sense.  In their study, 28 participants were subjected to different types of auditory stimuli – Electronic Voice Phenomena which are voices recorded electronically, actual human speech, degraded speech, and white noise.  Participants were randomly assigned either a condition in which they are told from the beginning that they are to identify the EVP recordings from paranormal research, and the others were told to identify voices in noisy environments.  Participants primed to identify paranormal voices, identified significantly more voices in the EVP and degraded speech trials than participants told to identify voices in noisy environments, although only agreeing 22% of the time on what was being said in the recordings.  The results of this study supports the idea that priming can guide the perception of voices that may or may not exist.

To expand upon the explanation of priming, Tipani Reikke and colleagues conducted a study in which they discovered a correlation between religious and paranormal believers and their likelihood to identify illusory faces when compared to skeptics and non-believers.  Both groups were subjected to the same sets of images, with and without face-like areas, and had to rate the face-likeness, on a scale of “not at all” at 0 to “a lot” at 170,  and the emotionality, what emotion is being conveyed, of the face-like areas.  Believers were more likely to identify faces in images, some were false alarms in which no face-like areas were present, as opposed to non-believers.  Paranormal and religious believers also rated images as more face-like and emotional than ratings of the skeptics and non-believers.  With many believers existing in the world, research on this aspect of paranormal pareidolia perception is quite compelling.

Taken together, these results indicate that the information the brain possesses from our experiences creates expectations for paranormal perception.  The human brain is equipped with an area that identifies real and illusory faces, with the help of priming, called the fusiform face area, even when the stimulus only barely resembles a face.  In the situation that a person is exposed to the idea that the noises he or she is about to hear comes from a paranormal source, it is more likely that the identification of a noise will be a significant voice.   Paranormal and religious believers are quicker at identifying a face that is present in an image, and even identify face features that do not exist in an image, along with higher emotionality and face-likeness ratings, compared to skeptics and non-believers.

Just an Illusion?

Full disclaimer: Pareidolia cannot explain everything.  Although previous research supports an idea that pareidolia can play a part in the identification of paranormal stimuli, and that paranormal priming can play a part in the perception of objects and sounds, not everything in this world can be explained.  I share this research, not to discourage any beliefs, but to expand the capabilities of the every-day human brain.  If you ever visit a reportedly haunted house or enjoy watching a reality TV paranormal investigation program, keep an open mind, but try not to forget that the brain can be a little trickster.

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