The concept of Pareidolia is defined as a psychological phenomenon that involves a vague or random stimulus such as an image or sound being perceived as significant. A form of Apophenia, or when we see meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, common forms of Pareidolia include seeing shapes in clouds, seeing a face in a knot on a tree or even hearing hidden messages when music tracks are played backwards.
Uncovering images in locations where they don’t exist is always popping up in the media. Onformative is a German software company that will use their Google Faces program to scan the globe (several times over using different angles) to detect face-like shapes on Google Maps. US Department store JC Penney quickly sold out of a kettle that was thought to resemble Adolf Hitler after the resemblance was mentioned on reddit. A chicken nugget shaped like US President George Washington sold for 5,000 pounds on ebay in 2012. A chapati with the image of Christ had at least 20,000 Christian revellers travel to Renewal Retreat Centre in Bangalore, India to view it. With more cases occurring quite frequently, there must be some reasoning behind why see faces in quite literally nothing.
Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani of Harvard University explains that humans are prewired to detect faces from birth, so paredolia would be due to our evolutionary heritage. Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University says that pareidolia is a consequence of the brain’s information processing systems. The brain is constantly sifting through random lines, shapes, surfaces and colours, so it makes sense of those images by assigning meaning to them. Meaning that comes by matching it to something stored in long-term memory. Sophie Scott of University College London says that paredolia can also be a product of people’s expectations that what we see is telling us more about what’s happening with our expectations and how we interpret the world based on those expectations rather than viewing the actual item without context.
Though not always in the forms of clouds or deity’s in trees or on toast, this concept has been applied to Psychology and the study of a person’s mental state. A Rorschach Inkblot Test is a psychological test that involves a patient looking at an inkblot and having their perception of the image they see recorded and analysed using psychological interpretation. As the cards have been designed without any specific image in mind, this is an example of “directed pareidolia.” The test however has come under some criticism as though some may believe that you could extrapolate from an individual certain cognitive behaviours from ambiguous stimuli, it is uncertain how the response from the stimuli had occurred. Though however, some psychologists may use an “invisible correlation” to correlate the response with a diagnosis even though it may not be clear. The test also brings forth questions with reliability and validity. Though with controversy, the inkblot test is still widely taught in graduate psychology programs in the United States.
Have you ever had the situation, where after someone points out the obvious, you’re like, how could I have missed that? It was right in front of my face. A concept known as Change Blindness may have just occurred, where a change in the visual stimuli has gone unnoticed by the observer (in this case you). The reason of this may be due to a number of reasons, some of which include bstructions in the visual field, eye movements, a change of location, or a lack of attention. Watch the quick video below.
Did any of you see the bear the first time around? If you haven’t seen the video before, I would assume no. But how, he was right there the whole time. Change Blindness was first reported when film editing was introduced into movie production, and editors began to notice that the audience were not noticing the changes to the background of the film. More and more research has begun to be performed on Change Blindness, especially into eyewitness testimony. [A demonstration to test Change Blindness can be found here]
In a TEDx talk at USC in 2012, Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, explains the process of reconstructed memories. He says that the brain only encodes and stores bits and pieces of the events occurring in front of us, storing each piece of information in a different parts of the brain. So when we have to recall our memories from experience, the memory is incomplete. Then, without any form of motivated processing, the brain fills in information not originally stored, from inferences, speculation or even sources of information that you learn after observing the event. [His TEDx talk can be found here]. An eyewitness testimony refers to the account provided by a bystander to a courtroom about their perceived events that had occurred during a specific incident under investigation. Though considered credible in the past, memory recall has come under attack as research shows that memories and individual perceptions are unreliable, being easily manipulated, altered, and biased. Because of this many countries are starting to alter how eyewitness testimony is presented in court.
With the inclusion of forensic DNA testing into court cases that exonerated 52 of the first 62 DNA cases that involved eyewitness testimony, has the shift been made from trusting eyewitness testimony whole-heartedly. This inclusion showed that eyewitnesses can fail to detect the culprit, or even convict an innocent man. Dr Neil Bewer from Flinders University has developed a new type of police-line up where eyewitnesses are asked how confident they are at identifying the perpetrator. His experiments showed that the group that was given the choice of confidence picked the correct suspects 67% of the time compared to 49% of the “yes or no” group.
Our mind is constantly playing tricks on us, fillings gaps in our knowledge or trying to make sense of what we see around us. We see faces or shapes in objects that don’t carry such profiles. We build memories in our mind based on information retrieved after the actual event, affecting what we believe we have seen. But when will the point come, where one day we are so adamant on seeing something that we may have never witnessed. In an excerpt from one of his notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci writes about Paredolia. He says “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.”
Have you ever witnessed Paredolia?
What has been the most interesting case of Paredolia you have seen in the Media?
– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet