Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pareidolia and Apophenia - Finding useless meaning

Apophenia is characterized by finding meaning and seeing patterns when presented with random and meaningless data. Aphopenia is considered a Type 1 error in statistics, when we consider that an effect has statistic significance but occurred due to random events.  
Although apophenia is linked to psychosis, a lot of people can show such behavior and actually a lot of conspiracy theories are based on it.

Pareidolia is a type of apophenia which refers to people’s perception of significant information where vague or random stimuli exist.
It seems that pareidolia influences animals too; in this interesting article we are presented with five cases of animal pareidolia. I will cite a few here:

Aphantochilus rogersi is an ant-mimicking spider that preys
exclusively on cephalotine ants.

Just as frogs are prone to see moving dots on a screen as flies, and sea urchins will
avoid any dark shadow as if it were an enemy fish, humans too tend to interpret their
environment  with the  "models  generated  by their most  pressing interests.

Face  perception  is  a  skill  crucial  to  primates…. …Almost  all  (97%)  of  the  visually responsive  neurons  in  this  region  were  strongly  face  selective,  indicating  that  a dedicated  cortical area exists to  support face processing in the macaque.

Anthropomorphism is similar to pareidolia and it refers to people’s tendency to apply human characteristics or attributes to non-human objects or creatures, beings, or phenomena. (more about anthropomorphism an pareidolia here )

Pareidolia can explain the perception of religious figures that appear on different items.
A well known case of pareidolia is the man or the faces people perceived to be on the surface of the moon. There are a lot of references throughout history regarding these perceptions: Plutarch’s treatise Of the Face appearing in the roundel of the Moone, old ballads or traditional nursery rhymes. For more images appearing on the moon you can check out this website

Carl Sagan stated:  
 As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.

Auditory Pareidolia

A type of pareidolia is auditory pareidolia that can be seen in EVP (electronic voice phenomenon); EVP is an electronic generated noise that resembles voices and many people believe these are actual ghost or other entities that are sending them a message.  

Another case of auditory pareidolia was the massive hysteria about some metal bands songs which had satanic or suicide messages when heard backwards.

Pareidolia in projective tests

Tests such as Holtzman Inkblot Test or Rorschach test use people’s pareidolia ability to understand more about their mental state. Rorschach test consists in showing ambiguous inkblot images to a subject to interpret them. People can see animals, humans, sexual scenes or sexual organs. However, the validity of Rorschach test is much debated.

Here’s a very interesting article about pareidolia.

So, next time you think it’s a sign that you and your boyfriend met on the same day you saw a rainbow in the sky, think again. Also, if you see Jesus in your pile of toenail clippings, you are not receiving any religious message from a superior being.  


  1. ...And I thought I was really on to something when I saw Chris Crocker's nostrils in my cheerios the other day @-)

  2. hmm, that might actually be a sign from God

  3. God can't possibly be that cruel :))

  4. I think i suffered of pareidolia, but i'm all better now...unfortunately.