Monday, January 9, 2012

apophenia and pareidolia

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people. The term has found a place outside of psychiatry and is used to describe the natural tendency of human beings to find meaning and significance in random, coincidental, or impersonal data. Apophenia may be described as the tendency to find personal information in noise, e.g., happening upon an open safety pin and seeing the arms as a sign indicating the time your son committed suicide.

Photo by Phil Plait
Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus. Or one sees the image of Mother Teresa in the folds of a cinnamon bun or Vladimir Lenin in the soap scum of a shower curtain.

copyright Mark D. Phillips
Apophenia and pareidolia can occur simultaneously as in the case of seeing a birthmark pattern on a goat as the Arabic word for Allah and thinking you've received a message from god. Likewise, not only seeing the Virgin Mary in tree bark but believing the appearance is a divine sign brings together apophenia and pareidolia. Seeing an alien spaceship in a pattern of lights in the sky is an example of pareidolia, but it becomes apophenia if you believe the aliens have picked you as their special envoy. Seeing Satan in the smoke of a burning building slips from pareidolia to apophenia when the viewer starts thinking that Satan is giving the world a sign that he is alive and well.

Under ordinary circumstances, apophenia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based on sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings, as well as the hearing of sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. Pareidolia and apophenia explain numerous religious apparitions and visions. And they explain why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.

Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia and apophenia as a means to understanding a patient, e.g., the Rorschach ink blot test.

According to Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, "The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity ... apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin." Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be psychoanalysts and therapists who use projective tests like the Rorschach test or who see patterns of child abuse behind every emotional problem. Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for Freud's notion of penis envy 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.

Soon after his son committed suicide, Episcopalian Bishop James A. Pike (1913-1969) began seeing meaningful messages in such things as a stopped clock, the angle of an open safety pin, and the angle formed by two postcards lying on the floor. He thought they were conveying the time his son had shot himself (Christopher 1975: 139).

Brugger gives examples of pareidolia and apophenia from August Strindberg's Occult Diary, the playwright's own account of his psychotic break:
He saw "two insignia of witches, the goat's horn and the besom" in a rock and wondered "what demon it was who had put [them] ... just there and in my way on this particular morning." A building then looked like an oven and he thought of Dante's Inferno.

He sees sticks on the ground and sees them as forming Greek letters which he interprets to be the abbreviation of a man's name and feels he now knows that this man is the one who is persecuting him. He sees sticks on the bottom of a chest and is sure they form a pentagram.

He sees tiny hands in prayer when he looks at a walnut under a microscope and it "filled me with horror."

His crumpled pillow looks "like a marble head in the style of Michelangelo." Strindberg comments that "these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of Gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night ... I was greeted by the Evil One himself...."
Brugger's research indicates that high levels of dopamine affect the propensity to find meaning, patterns, and significance where there is none, and that this propensity is related to a tendency to believe in the paranormal.

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where there are none. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia and pareidolia, e.g., ghosts and hauntings, EVP, numerology, the Bible code, most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena.

One particular area where apophenia plays a significant role is in the subjective validation that occurs in a cold reading by an alleged psychic, astrologer, palm reader, tarot reader, or medium. Readers throw out words and expressions, sitters find meaning and significance in them. Even if the words are random and impersonal, sitters strive to find personal meaning in them.

It is well known that apophenia and pareidolia are related to the human instinct to see patterns and find meaning; both are rooted in our evolutionary history. Our species has stupendous pattern-recognition abilities, so stupendous, in fact, that we often see patterns where there are none. We've evolved to find meaning in patterns and infer causal relationships from coincidences. "Our understanding of our world is systematically biased to perceive meaning rather than randomness and to infer cause rather than coincidence. And we are usually completely unaware of these biases" (Chabris and Simons, The Invisible Gorilla). Consider how automatic some of these brain processes are:
….visual areas of your brain can be activated by images that only vaguely resemble what they're tuned for. In just one-fifth of a second, your brain can distinguish a face from other objects like chairs or cars. In just an instant more, your brain can distinguish objects that look a bit like faces, such as a parking meter or a three-prong outlet, from other objects like chairs. Seeing objects that resemble faces induces activity in a brain area called the fusiform gyrus that is highly sensitive to real faces. In other words, almost immediately after you see an object that looks anything like a face, your brain treats it like a face and processes it differently than other objects. (Chabris and Simons, The Invisible Gorilla)
Add a little religious or political zeal to the brain's natural disposition to recognize faces in just about anything with a shape and a few shadows and you've got the recipe for a dozen tortillas with the "face of Jesus" imprinted on them or a single toasted cheese sandwich that reminds people of President Obama.

It seems likely that our associations of shapes, lines, and shadows are related to our current desires, interests, hopes, and obsessions, even though associative thinking is rooted in our evolutionary history. Most people recognize illusions for what they are, but some become fixated on the reality of their perception and turn an illusion into a delusion. A little bit of critical thinking, however, should convince most reasonable people that a potato that looks like the Hindu god Ganesh, a cinnamon bun that looks like mother Teresa, or a burnt area on a tortilla that looks like Jesus are accidents and without significance. It is more likely that the Virgin Mary one sees in the reflection of a mirror or on the floor of an apartment complex or in the clouds has been generated from one's own imagination than that a person who has been dead for 2,000 years should manifest herself in such a mundane and useless fashion.

Since most of us are innumerate, we often find significance in purely coincidental events. If you think of all the pairs of things that can happen in a person's lifetime and add to that our versatility at finding meaningful connections between things in ambiguous situations, it seems likely that most of us will experience many meaningful coincidences, but we are the ones who give them meaning. Given the fact that there are billions of people and the possible number of meaningful coincidences is millions of billions, it is inevitable that many people will experience some very weird and uncanny coincidences every day. Put another way, with a large enough sample size, just about any possible weird coincidence will happen. This is sometimes called the law of truly large numbers. Those who believe that these meaningless coincidences are truly meaningful call it synchronicity, an expression coined by Carl Jung.

further reading

Brugger, Peter. 2001. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.

Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown.

Christopher, Milbourne. 1975. Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Leonard, Dirk M.A. and Peter Brugger, Ph.D. 1998. "Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation?" Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, Vol. 11, No. 4 pp. 177-183.

Reed, Graham. 1988. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach. Prometheus Books.

Sagan, Carl. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House.

Schick, Jr., Theodore and Lewis Vaughn. 2010. How to Think About Weird Things. Mayfield Publishing Company.

Zusne, Leonard and Warren Jones. 1990.  Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.


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  3. there is an excellent paper online i will put the link to it, it speaks of apophenia and gives a good defenition of it. most smart people don't understand, the phenomona, includes music, poker, art, anything that anyone does, visual art and so forth. the patterns are there. no mistaking that. Abstract:
    Despite popular perception, the pixel, the smallest visible element
    used in digital expression, actually has a history that goes farther back
    than most of us realize. Although, contemporary generative art has
    evolved from the coalescence of artistic practices and technology, it is
    the added innate function of the human brain to form meaningful
    imagery from a variety of visual stimuli that has provided the primary
    environment in which the pixel is employed.
    Though a pixel can be viewed merely as a container for smaller digital
    elements (for example RGB color values), it is the smallest visible
    component a viewer interacts with in the digital world. It is the role of
    the pixels in a collection to provide the viewer with the necessary
    information required to create a meaningful image. The human brain
    has an incredible capacity to link, reference, and formulate meaningful
    structures from visual information even where the stimuli is limited,
    selective, random or meaningless. This is a phenomenon known as
    Utilizing apophenia as the vehicle for exploration, this paper will trace
    the trajectory of pixel evolution from Bronze Age Mesopotamia (~1500
    BC) through the early 20th century. The purpose of this investigation
    is to not only establish the greater history of the pixel in image
    construction, but to provide a greater context for understanding the
    inherent modes of human perception and how these ideas interact
    with, inform, and alter our experiences with works of generative art.

  4. The classic Chiropractic Subluxation!

    1. I don't understand how your comment relates to the article at all, however it provided a very wonderful example of apophenia. I spend a good deal of time laying on my bed, head propped up with pillows while on my laptop. This has led to the development of what i previously thought was TMJ. But, after googling chiropractic subluxation, i'm pretty sure that's the cause. Coincidence, or divine message? The world may never know.

  5. Simple way of discrediting those that can see further and anyone that opposes the occult nature and sorcery of those that rule behind the curtains. Its not mental illness-The pineal gland is simply healthy and not calcified and atrophied like the majority.

    Welcome to Oz bitches

  6. Aren't you going overboard? They're just trying to say that if you see an image of Mary on a piece of toast most likely it isn't. Nothing about occult mumbo jumbo.

  7. I found this article searching to understand why a good friend is marketing his NEW DISCOVERY in the pyramid walls. He finds lines in poor quality low resolution photos and draws numerous pictures of aliens, Egyptians, prophets, Jesus, God, animals, etc. and states the claim the images have been supernaturally put there. He goes on that they give messages about he past and present. I know him very well and I know he has the ability as a cartoonist to draw anything he wants. He also has a music matrix that he says revolutionizes music. I am a trained musician and I know he has never seen pyramid walls in person. I am trying to understand what is going on with him pychologically. This helps me to understand.

    1. heya, can you tell me the name of our friend s art pages or something? it would be cool to check out the pareidolia drawings if he has any. If you know anything more about pareidolia and drawing please mention it :P.

  8. My brother man,, if someone sees the face of my man J.C on their tortilla or a animals head on their toasted cheese sandwich,,,it has nothing to do with you internally or externally... Mans defects include the following...Complicating the sht out of everything, if you have a complex and a big question,, well then it must have a big answer with many parts and alot of big words so nobody knows what the hell the person is saying;; The truth is the best minds this planet has are literally just talking out of their ass...and when their done they must point out my poor sentence structure and mis spellings... They just have to inform me im a complete moron because i dont know where to put a fkn period or comma...Well you see i was to frkn busy to learn all the stuff like math or physics etc.. Its a waste of time anyways.. None of it will help;; 15 billion dollars later they found the Higgs, which is pretty cool,but you could prove string theory and dark matter and how you can get something from nothing and to top it off get God on video... But all its going to do is just give you alot more questions and very unsatisfying answers if any..So all the really big questions that man has been searching for with his mad math while they were spending years in school for a phd and master here and their and proper sentence structure..I found and know the answers. I spent 40 yrs busting my brain every second of every day... And all i got was just more questions..I hadnt learned a damn thing... The answers came from the one place that nobody would fathom..And its the only true source to get answers.. Well im considered nuts and delusional and ,,well just all fukd up! So ill take what i know to the grave probably..Its sad.. people really need to know what i know.. I got all the answers i was looking for and more..but i also know some things i wish i diddnt..ID have to type for a month to give you the 411 on some things,,and hate heres a crumb..When someone sees the virgin mary on a dirty fence or Jesus in their eggs...btw if anyone saw a picture of J.C THEY WOULD HAVE NO IDEA who they were looking at...all those capitals werent for effect,, i hit the caps lock button and didnt feel like going back to correct my Im stupid ,nuts and now Anyways so a face on a taco shell or a wall or tears coming from a statue or painting etc etc.. what that is just somebody fukn with you..either they are really bored and get a big kick out of it or they do not like you..which can be serious.. Now faces on,, say a tree trunk or a big rock way up high is something totally different.. Now faces like in the smoke from the trade center..i could explain it all but im done


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  10. I more interested in apophenia. I think the key word in its definition is "spontaneous". As it has been often noted (see here apophenia is often observed in gamblers trying to make sense in roulette or other games' outcomes. But since the gambler has a motivation in trying to understand the game I wonder if this behaviour can really be called apophenia or it is some other type of cognitive bias.

    So what would be an example of non-spontaneous perception of connections?

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