By Vexen Crabtree 2016
The cognitive process of seeing patterns and drawing conclusions from random patterns and ambiguous data is called pareidolia. It is a highly common 'thinking error'. A part of our brain, the fusiform face area, actively looks for any shapes, lines or features that might possibly be a human face. It does so devoid of context, and reports with urgency and confidence when it thinks it has results. That's why most pareidolia is involved with the perception of human forms in messy visual data. It "explains why some people see a face on Mars or the man in the moon [... or] the image of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun, or the Virgin Mary in the bark of a tree"1. Auditory pareidolia is responsible for the way that all of sometimes mistake a whistling breeze for a whispering human voice. When people listen with expectation of hearing a voice they will hear spoken words in pure noise2. We often misperceive random events in a way that supports our own already-existing beliefs or hunches3. Some patterns seem and feel so natural and real that it goes against common-sense to deny them. But against all expectations and against our judgements, many perceived objects turn out to be illusions. Psychologist Jonah Lehrer says "the world is more random than we can imagine. That's what our emotions can't understand"4. The tendency for people to see more order in nature than there is was noted as long ago as the thirteenth century by Roger Bacon - he called such errors due to human nature the 'idols of the tribe'5. To study pareidolia sociologists have presented true sets of random results and analysed subject's responses to them. Coin flips, dice throws and card deals have all revealed that we are naturally prone to spotting non-random trends exist when in fact they don't6. Pareidolia results in superstitions, magical thinking, ghost and alien sightings, 'Bible codes', pseudo-science and beliefs in all kinds of religious, nonsensical and magical things6,7,8.9
Spot Jesus in the rear end of a dog, soapy water draining down a sink looking like an eye, two gremlin peppers and a very angry mop.
Normally the word "pareidolia" is associated with the erroneous observation of striking images in unexpected places. But the term isn't specific to our eyes. It is a universal human experience to mistake the mild whistle of a breeze through a narrowly open window for a whispering human voice. Or to hear human wails in the yelps of a fox. Auditory pareidolia has possibly been studied more than the visual kind, and the phenomenon is responsible for all manner of ghostly beliefs and superstitious tales.
“It had become apparent during World War II that there is a large variation in the ability of sonar operators to make sense of the clutter of sounds picked up by the hydrophones of a submarine. Some operators could identify the faint sound of a distant ship´s screw even in the presence of much louder background noises. The difference in operator ability went far beyond the results of standard hearing tests. Was this something that could be taught to operators? Or if not, could we screen for this ability? As a first step, an experiment was conducted in which sonar operators listened on their headphones to a background of random noise. A string of spoken words was then superimposed on the noise background. The operator´s task was to write down what they heard. The spoken words would be repeated with increasing volume until the operator could make them out above the noise. It was expected that what the operators heard would initially be garbled, but would improve each time the volume level of the spoken words was increased relative to the background. To get a good baseline, the background noise was kept on the headphones for some period of time before the spoken line was superimposed. No one, however, thought to inform the operators of this dead period. The result was unexpected. Often the operators began writing down words they 'heard' almost immediately - before there were any words to hear.”
“Psychologists have discovered that people have faulty intuitions about what chance sequences look like. People expect sequences of coin flips, for example, to alternate between heads and tails more than they actually do. [...] Streaks of 4, 5, or 6 heads in a row clash with our expectations about the behaviour of a fair coin, although in a series of 20 tosses there is a 50-50 chance of getting 4 heads in a row [and] a 10 percent chance of a streak of six. [...] People who work in maternity wards witness streaks of boy births followed by streaks of girl births that they attribute to a variety of mysterious forces like the phases of the moon. Here too, the random sequences of births to which they are exposed simply do not look random.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life"
Thomas Gilovich (1991)6
“Probability is an eerie phenomenon and is always lurking around ready to trick us into thinking we have witnessed some unbelievably rare event or that we somehow have mystical powers.”
"Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology" by Hugh Coolican (2004)7
This type of cognitive illusion-making results from our subconscious evaluation of evidence and correlations. Prof Edward Bono10 goes to lengths to explain that complexity is the greatest "enemy of thinking". Our attempts at pattern-recognition cannot be verified through raw thinking. To make progress, he argues, we need to structure and organize our thoughts, and the best way to do this is through training. One of the best way is to learn why we make errors such as pareidolia - once we learn we're doing it, we can spot it and habitually work around it.
One major cause of religious thinking, say experts, is the tendency for us to see "agency" in the complicated sequences of natural events. Dualism is the simplistic idea that things have physical bodies and separate intentions that can exist independently of the body. It is easy to see how we, as a species, found it useful to develop such an instinctive view. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, explains that various components of our normal working brain can result in beliefs that are religious and irrational in nature, due to the scientifically inaccurate way that we model the world. The 'hyperactive agent detection device' is the clumsy name given to the clumsy way in which we tend to personify complex movements (giving them intentions):
“We are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us. [...] Children, and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks. All of us are prone to do the same thing with machines, especially when they let us down. Many will remember with affection the day Basil Fawlty's car broke down during his vital mission to save Gourmet Night from disaster. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, then got out of the car, seized a tree branch and thrashed it to within an inch of its life.”
The psychologist Justin Barrett came up with the term "Hyperactive Agent Detection Device"12 to describe the kind of neurological side-effect whereby our first instinctive reaction to events is to try to figure out the intention of the agent who is behind them.
“According to psychologist Justin Barrett, this feature of our psychological functioning is fundamental to understanding concepts of gods and spirits [... Because people] detect traces of [supernatural agents'] presence in many circumstances [... Even] in many contexts where other interpretations [...] are equally plausible. It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions. [...] There are important evolutionary reasons why we (as well as other animals) should have 'Hyper-Active Agent Detection'. Our evolutionary heritage is that of organisms that must deal with both predators and prey. In either situation, it is far more advantageous to over-detect agency than to under-detect it.”
The idea of agency behind most physical events is normally quickly discounted. But when it comes to gods and spirits, it is very hard indeed to find any immediate evidence against our instinctive reactions. So, when seeking answers about the reason for an event, the 'something must have done it' part of our instincts cannot, in some people, be dismissed rationally. All it takes is a cultural framework or social discussion, and these indistinct feelings can be given concrete names and even personalities. A scholar of Eastern religion, Arthur A. Macdonell, explains that "as soon as a person has taken the place of a natural force in the imagination, the poetical fancy begins to weave a web of secondary myth" and personalized stories, myths, about this primal spirit become attached to the idea, with the details of the stories often taken from other sources14. So from an idea of agency, we humans excel at building up a backstory to go with the invented mystical being. Hence, there are local tribal spirits, sky gods, evil and wild spirits, ghosts in certain buildings, and when most of them are no longer found to exist as we develop our intellectual insights, there is always the eternal creator-God who never really does anything but secretly influences subtle events in the world. Our evolutionary history has led us into a world of spirituality and religion, based on cognitive functions that are designed to give us good instincts about when and where predators are. When this system starts getting in the way of our exploration of the actual world, this has become cognitive dysfunction.
As religion developed out of these instincts in our history, now, our present science disconfirms our projections of intent on to inanimate objects. But frequently we still believe in the religions that have developed out of these misdirected ideas. The attribution of natural events to 'magical' and 'spiritual' causes is frequently an easier way to understand than to study the phenomena scientifically. It is an easy way out of existential difficulties.
Also see: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?.
Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred TruthsWhy Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of FreethoughtThe False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own BeliefsWhat is Science and the Scientific Method?
Perception & Memory:
What Causes Religion and Superstitions?Experiences of God are Illusions, Derived from Malfunctioning Psychological ProcessesHallucinations, Sensory Deprivation and Fasting: The Physiological Causes of Religious and Mystical ExperiencesScience and ReligionReligion and Intelligence
Bono, Prof E.
(1985) Six Thinking Hats. Paperback book. 2000 edition based on revised First Back Bay 1999 edition. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, The Strand, London, UK.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2003) The Skeptic's Dictionary. Published by John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, USA.
(2004) Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology. 4th edition. Published by Hodder Headline, London, UK.
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Paperback book. 1993 edition. Published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Hardback book. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh.
(1999) Social Psychology. Paperback book. 6th ('international') edition. Originally published 1983. Current version published by McGraw Hill.
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