Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Face Value

When you're going through you're daily routine do you ever stop and notice that some things are a Almost like your environment is...looking at you?

Don't worry, because chances are this is just a simple case of what's called Pareidolia. This is a psychological phenomena where sufficiently vague or random stimuli look suspiciously like a recognizable pattern, especially faces.

The Human brain is hardwired to see patterns in just about everything, even seemingly unrelated stimuli. It's our ability to find patterns and relationships that makes us such great scientists and detectives, because our brains can pick out abstract similarities between things we see and hear. But the pattern-finding process isn't infallible, sometimes people see relationships in stimuli even when there isn't actually any relationship at all. This is how superstitions get started; people perceive two unrelated events and start imagining all sorts of wild relationships between them. It's like how people think breaking mirrors is bad luck. Maybe at one point someone broke a mirror and then, by completely unrelated circumstances, things started going wrong for them. Maybe their sure-fire investment strategy went bad or something.

To an outside observer, the mirror breaking and the bad investment are unrelated, but to the person experiencing these events first hand they feel like maybe, just maybe, one caused the other. They don't rightly have proof that mirrors can influence their luck, but they have a hunch. Thus, a superstition is born!

Pareidolia is a related concept, because our ability to recognize patterns isn't just limited to our perception of cause and effect. It's also deeply ingrained in how we recognize faces. Because really, what is a face? It's a recognizable pattern: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a mustache, etc.

Well, sometimes we see the recognizable pattern of a fellow Human's face even when what we're looking at isn't a face at all, it's an electrical outlet. Our brain is telling us it's a face, because the various details of the object look just enough like something familiar to set off those little signals in the brain. We know it's not a person, but that doesn't stop us from thinking "Hey, it looks like that socket is frowning!".

Fun-hating skeptics have been using Pareidolia to explain away plenty of conspiracy theories. Probably the best known example is the so-called Face on Mars. Back when it was first discovered, the face caused a huge stir and got people thinking Martians had carved it into the mountain. But eventually it became obvious that the face was just the result of shadows hitting the rock in such a way as to make it look eerily like a face, but wasn't actually one.

The same goes for people who say they've found Jesus in their toast. It's probably not actually Jesus, it just looks a lot like him.

In fact, next time you think the Virgin Mary is watching you just remember: it's probably your brain playing tricks on you.

I mean, how gullible do you have to be to believe this stuff? What, you really think random objects are watching you?

You'd have to be pretty superstitious to get that carried away. You know what this is? People letting their imaginations get the better of them.

I mean, that's classic animistic thinking...there's no way...that mountain is secretly Ted Danson.

...and that...


Oh my god...

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