Apophenia and Pareidolia

This is my word for the day. Apophenia. It means:

The spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things; seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist.

I mentioned in a previous post that if we don’t learn something new every day, the day is wasted. Well, I learned this word today, so I can chalk up another useful day.

I was aware of the concept, but I never knew what it was called. A related word, with similar connotations, is Pareidolia, which means:

A type of illusion or misperception involving a vague stimulus which is perceived as clearly being something.

These words describe phenomena I have experienced all my life, but never fully understood. It’s amazing what a mere definition can bring to bear on a mystery. To this day I can look at the foliage in a tree or shrub, and see a leprechaun grinning at me, or the face of a devil (they always seem to be faces). I blink, and it’s still there. But it’s not, really. It’s just my brain, seeking patterns, finding them, and transforming them into the familiar.

Look at the picture at the top of this post. Most of you will recognize it. For the longest time after this picture was disseminated by NASA after the Viking orbiter photographed it in 1976, everyone thought that some intelligent being had carved a human face on the surface of Mars. More recent evidence has shown that it is simply a natural rock outcropping coupled with the sun’s shadow, taking advantage of human pareidolia. (Here’s a more terrestrial example) To use layman’s terms, our mind is playing tricks on us. The mind does that sometimes. As children, and even as adults, we practice recognizing otherwise meaningless patterns when we look for animals in the shapes of clouds. Psychiatrists rely on this phenomenon to diagnose thought disorders when they give the Rorschach Ink Blot Test.

Of course, you’re all familiar with the Virgin Mary Toasted Cheese that sold on eBay for $28,000.00, purchased, most likely, by a credulous Christian. There is also the Virgin Mary Pop Tart. These are prime examples of pareidolia. To the skeptic, what you have in the picture above left is a toasted cheese sandwich – with the alternating darker and lighter areas common with this type of culinary delight. To the Christian “suffering” from pareidolia, it’s the Virgin Mary’s visage divinely imprinted on fried bread with a side order of cheese.

C’mon, you can see it, can’t you? Admit it. I will. There is a clear image of a woman’s face there. (Personally, I think it looks like Marlene Dietrich myself. I don’t see anything that points to it being Mary, as opposed to any female. But, hey, I’m not a Christian.) But it was not placed there by any supernatural intervention in the frying process, it’s merely a coincidence. We only have one of these in existence, out of the billions of toasted cheese sandwiches prepared over the years since the TCS was first concocted. With all of the TCSs being made in kitchens and frying pans all over the world, throughout the history of toasted cheese sandwiches, it’s a miracle that there are not more of these. (They were probably eaten by the less religious.)

A good example of apophenia, as opposed to pareidolia, is set forth in the Skeptic’s Dictionary, here:

Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for the penis envy theory because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test. Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

An understanding of apophenia and pareidolia, then, goes far in explaining why very religious people receive positive reinforcement for their feelings about the supernatural. First, they are indoctrinated from birth by their parents, family and schools, to believe that there is in fact a god. Once they are conditioned to have a belief in supernatural entities, their brains compute any little unrelated pattern into something familiar – God. Or Mary in a highway underpass stain. Or whatever it is that they are predisposed to believe in. Presumably, Muslims see Mohammad (I don’t) and Hindus see their Hindu gods in innocent and random patterns. Or they see unrelated events, occurring in their lives, as related, and signs from heaven.

The cart is being placed before the horse, again, because there is no evidence of what any of the people of these images actually looked like, yet people see them and recognize them based on their preconceptions of what they think they should look like. It’s no coincidence that all of the images of Jesus look like the stereotypical Western representation of Jesus, with long hair and a beard, even though we have no pictures of what he looked like, much less that he existed at all!

This is where I get to reinforce the fact, and I do believe there is no real dispute about this, that scientific explanations for phenomena that we previously did not understand, always, (100% of the time) trump religious explanations. This is rationality in it’s finest hour, one hour at a time. Every time we find a scientific explanation that explains reality, we move that much farther away from superstition and magic, and a lot closer to having near complete control over our lives, by understanding reality as it is.

So where does that leave that poor(er) Christian who bought that TCS with Marlene Dietrich 1 on it? Probably just as stupid, as credulous and as unenlightened as he was before he bought it. He has learned nothing. In fact, he’s farther away from understanding what apophenia and pareidolia are, and how they explain his bad investment intuition.

I, however, take solace in the near certain fact that someone, somewhere, ate a toasted cheese sandwich with my picture on it. They didn’t know what they had.

1. And the joke’s on him. She was an atheist.

5 thoughts on “Apophenia and Pareidolia

  1. With regard to pareidolia, we’re helped along by our evolutionary heritage. Evolution has primed human beings to interpret any vaguely face-shaped stimulus as a face – studies have found that even newborn infants prefer to look at face-shaped cards over non-face-shaped ones.

    I suspect there’s a fairly obvious selective explanation for this: infants that recognize and return their parents’ gazes are more likely to be the recipients of parental love and affection. It’s just unfortunate that our hyperactive face-spotting systems insist on seeing faces even where there actually aren’t any.

  2. I fully realize that these kinds of interpretations have all kinds of psychological connotations, but I think we created our own demons (or angels) by failing to teach logic in primary school. I think it’s most important to at least teach what constitutes a logical fallacy. My own kids read a book that I left laying around called How to Think About Strange Things, which goes into detail about logical fallacies and coincidence. They basically did a 180 from Christian fundamentalism to good old fashioned skepticism.

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