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Why we see Jesus in a piece of toast or hear Bing Crosby amid static

The surface of Mars: see a face?

British psychologist Vaughan Bell wrote an interesting article earlier this week in the Guardian about “the remarkable human talent for perceiving meaning where there is none.”

The phenomenon is called apophenia or pareidolia (or sometimes patternicity), and, as Bell points out, we all experience it to a certain extent.

“We see faces in the clouds and animals in rock formations,” he explains. “We mishear our name being called in crowds and think our mobile phones are vibrating when it turns out to be nothing but the normal sensations of our movement.”

Reports of such apophenic images pop up in the media frequently, such as the “Hitler house” in Wales or the “Jesus” pierogi in Ohio or the admittedly weird (and spooky) “face on Mars.”

Of course, there are also those endless examples of people who supposedly look like their dogs.

And the people who swore they could hear a “Paul is dead” message when they played the Beatles’ “White Album” backward.

Clinical usefulness

In the clinical setting says Bell, apophenia is often a characteristic of the hallucinations associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In one classic 1972 study, he notes, “more than 80 [percent] of psychiatric patients who experienced hallucinations falsely perceived the sound of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas when asked to listen for it amid the sound of static.”

But, adds Bell, you don’t have to be “out of touch with reality” to hear something that doesn’t exist. In that same study, 40 percent of healthy participants also said they could hear Bing crooning.

“The music was used a decade earlier in one of the first ever lab studies on hallucinations in everyday people,” Bell writes. “The same approach has been used many times since, making Bing Crosby the most hallucinated man in science.”

An explanation for conspiracy theories

As another psychologist, University of Utah’s Bruce Poulsen, pointed out in a Psychology Today article on this same topic last year, “some forms of apophenia help explain certain sequences of behavior — such as the gambler’s fallacy or other misperceptions of probability (this is illustrated most simply by sequential coin tosses where one might erroneously believe that after 5 tosses of heads, the probability of getting tails would somehow be higher than 50%).”

“Apophenia also surfaces in the more complex patterns of our interpersonal world,” he adds. “Conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the twin towers of 9/11 were destroyed in a controlled demolition perpetrated by the government, are confabulations based on misperceived patterns. Such fallacious reasoning also has potentially adverse social consequences. For example, despite a paucity of evidence showing a causal connection, many parents do not vaccinate their children because they believe such vaccinations cause autism.”

A common phenomenon

But, again, you don’t have to be suffering from hallucinations or believe in conspiracy theories to experience this unsettling phenomenon. All of us, at some time or another, see or hear things that aren’t actually there.

Although, as Bell reports, researchers have found that believing in the supernatural or paranormal — or having high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain — apparently helps.

That may explain why so many apophenic objects involve religious images.

Rational people will, of course, dismiss the deep meaning often attributed to apophenic images as being ridiculous — and it is. But seeing those patterns is very much part of the human experience.

“While it’s tempting to view apophenia as merely a defect in our cognitive processing capacities (i.e., something that must be overcome or defeated),” writes Poulsen, “it might be useful for us to view this tendency as being an ironic, even amusing aspect of our nature. We are fooled by optical illusions — apophenia of the visual cortex — but we don’t take such cognitive errors personally.”

“Our relentless detection of patterns is part of our larger search for meaning,” he adds. “Our greatest challenge may be learning to bear incoherence.”

You can read Poulsen’s piece on the Psychology Today website and Bell’s on the Guardian’s site.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/21/2013 - 12:34 pm.

    The basic phenomenon is not new.

    It’s long been accepted that we have evolved so as to be sensitive to pattern recognition; we’re predisposed to perceive patterns even when they are not really there, because the cost of seeing a pattern when it’s not their (false positive) is much less in survival than the cost of missing one that’s there (a false negative).
    If you treat that rustle in the grass as signaling a lion and you’re wrong, at worst you’ve wasted a bit of energy.
    On the other hand, if it really is a lion and you treat it as if it were just the wind, -you’re- wasted!

    So, the authors are just putting a new label on an extreme case of an old phenomenon.

  2. Submitted by Michael Johnson on 11/27/2013 - 10:03 am.

    Observing a controlled demolition cannot be apophenia.

    To use the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers (and we can’t forget Building 7!) as an example of apophenia is a perfect example of false reasoning applied by seemingly millions of people in this regard. And it is this: to look at the collapse of all these buildings on video, the obvious conclusion is that it looked like a controlled demolition in every case. Indeed, even news anchor Peter Jennings remarked during the live television broadcast of the event that it appeared to be a controlled demolition. Why? Because that is what it looked like. It was not at all similar to something like seeing Jesus in the clouds or some such perception of a pattern that is only apparent to the observer and not contained in the phenomena itself. There is a conspiracy here however and it is revealed by linking the event with what its cause must be, i.e. as “perpetrated by the government.” To observe the event and conclude it was a controlled demolition does not lead the observer to assume the government must have been behind it. That indeed would be alleging a conspiracy. However, to perpetrate this sort of fallacy and equate it with a “confabulation based on misperceived patterns” is another type of conspiracy altogether.

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