Monday, 16 June 2008

Seeing Things? Part 3 – Pareidolia

Have you ever seen faces in the clouds? Or in knotted and gnarled tree trunks? How about the “man in the moon”? Or the Virgin Mary’s face in a grilled cheese sandwich?!

These are all common examples of Pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which a random stimulus is interpreted by the brain as something specific and recognisable. Pareidolia can be visual, such as seeing patterns of light and shade as a face, or it can be auditory, such as hearing words spoken inamongst static or white noise.

Pareidolia is a natural outcome of the fact that our brains are designed to process a great deal of information in our physical environment. In order for us to survive, our brains have to be able to recognise important patterns inamongst the noise. For example, Carl Sagan hypothesised that survival was dependent on being able to recognise the human face from a distance and in poor visibility using only minimal visual cues.

Although there are about twelve visual cues that have been identified as important for a random pattern to be identified as a face (such as eyes darker than forehead and mouth darker than cheeks), our brains don’t actually process each of these cues individually in order to conclude that it is seeing a face. Instead, our brains process faces holistically, seeing the whole image at once and immediately identifying it as an individual. Research into exactly how the brain does this and which parts of the brain are involved is still ongoing. The identification of the visual cues involved in this processing has been invaluable, however, in allowing facial recognition software to be developed and put to use in areas as diverse as identifying terrorist suspects amidst crowds at an airport to being able to focus correctly on faces using your point-and-shoot digital camera.

Does the existence of pareidolia rule out any paranormal explanation for seeing faces in nature or hearing voices in static? Is it still possible that these are evidence of nature spirits or spirit communication? My own feeling is that many experiences such as these are simply visual or auditory illusions. However, I do also feel that some such experiences are very real indications of paranormal activity. Rather than leaping to conclusions either way when something like this is experienced, I would urge you to keep an open mind (both ways!) and use sensitivity and considered judgement when coming to a decision about what you are seeing or hearing.

This is Part 3 of 5 in a series exploring common visual experiences often mistaken for paranormal occurrences. The other posts in the series are as follows:
* Part 1 - Floaters
* Part 2 - Flashes Of Light
* Part 4 - Retinal Fatigue & Afterimages

* Part 5 - Reflections & Conclusions


Andrea Hess|Empowered Soul said...

I'm really enjoying this series of yours! You know, I never "see" Spirit Guides or entities with my physical eyes. And yet, I could give you a detailed "description" of the entities I communicate with, because they appear very vividly in my mind's eye.

To be honest, the idea of "seeing" entities with my physical eyes has always creeped me out! :-)


Mags | Woo-Woo Wisdom said...

Thanks, Andrea!

I think the way psychic vision is portrayed in the movies, for example, gives people a skewed idea of how the spiritual world is actually usually seen (i.e. in the mind's eye), and so people look externally for spiritual experiences rather than inside themselves.

That said, there do seem to be some people whose psychic abilities are such that they see entities with their physical eyes, but it doesn't seem to be a common experience. Like you, my mind's eye vision is clear enough though that I don't need to see my guides, for example, with my physical eyes as well.