Monday, January 19, 2009


In the comments here, Southern Writer asked for a discussion on pareidolia.

That could be a long, long discussion so I'll just start it off with this post and see where it leads. To make things challenging, I'll first refer to a fundamentalist sceptic site which dismisses the entire thing as the ramblings of disordered minds, and extends it to cover bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs.

Which somewhat undermines their argument. Pareidolia refers to the human habit of seeing faces and humanoid or animal shapes in random patterns. if you watch the clouds, you'll see faces form. If you stare at trees or bushes moving in a breeze, or even standing still, you'll see faces. If you're bored enough to stare at the fuzz on an untuned TV, you'll see faces and 'recognisable' shapes.

What you won't be able to do is photograph or film them. They're not there. They are something your mind is making up as it tries to decipher the random image before it. Even the Moon, where we all clearly see the 'man in the moon' - take a photo and the face is harder to visualise. So, why faces?

We like to think, especially in Europe and the US, that we live in an industrialised and logical world. No witchcraft, no magic, no supernatural, no religion, can alter the Scientific Truth of the concrete and steel that surrounds us. We can take a small device from our pocket and speak to someone on the other side of the world. We can use this same device to take a photograph and transmit it anywhere on the planet. Telepathy? Vague images and feelings transferred between only a few individuals? How can it compete?

Science does not study most aspects of the paranormal because, let's be fair, science has no need of those results. Who cares about remote viewing, when someone with a tiny camera and a pocket computer with wireless broadband can take a photo, put it on the internet and make it instantly available to anyone, anywhere, who has access to a terminal? But I digress. That's a different argument.

We believe we are civilised and advanced. We grew up with it. But think - anyone my age, and many younger, can remember when VHS recorders first appeared. Many remember vinyl records and the thrill that was the first compact audio cassette. Many alive today recall the first television sets - we're talking 1950's here for general availability. The first motor cars appeared around 1904, were restricted to walking pace and had to have a poor sap walking in front with a red flag. There are few who remember that, but there are some. Certainly my grandmother would have seen those days.

The stuff we see around us is new. It's not that long ago we were mostly living among woodland and shrub, and not too many generations before that, our lives would depend on recognising a threat before it killed us. Bear, tiger or other human - they have faces. So our brains look for faces. Sometimes they see faces where there are none, but better to have false alarms than ignore a real one. Our brain searches patterns for faces because it's one of the brain's functions.

One of the best descriptions I ever heard came from a curmudgeon of my acquaintance who refers to humans as 'monkeys with fancy toys'. He's not far wrong. The pace of progress far outstrips our mental development. Inside, we are still watching for the threat in the woods, still searching for faces.

So we will see faces in pixellated images. We won't all see the same ones. That's why I put up photos without comment, without even saying I think there's a ghost in there most of the time, because I want to know if anyone sees what I see.

It works the other way, of course. A sceptic will claim 'pixellation' and feel no need to prove it. Take a look at this image.

Ciaran O'Keefe states that it's pixellation, light and shadow. It might be. Does he take any steps to prove his hypothesis? Of course not. Saying 'Pariedolia' is sufficient. I don't know if that's a ghost or not, but I can't dismiss it as easily as he does.

There is such a thing as pareidolia. However, it's now used by sceptics in much the same way that 'Get thee hence, Satan', was used by the old exorcists. Saying it dispels the threat.

This post is long enough. I'll continue later.


Southern Writer said...

Nice post. I agree. It is a bit of a double standard, isn't it? If you say it's a ghost, you're required to prove it, but if they say it's not a ghost, it's accepted that it's not a ghost. At least by the willfully ignorant.

The picture from the link is pretty convincing. It doesn't look like pixilation to me. I've seen plenty of pixilation -- loads. Tons. It doesn't look like that. I didn't get the one related to the crying girl, though. Different one? Same one? I didn't really understand, and the guy speaks English, sort of.

Romulus Crowe said...

The common sceptic fault is shown by the site - because some of the images can easily be shown to be fake, all such images must therefore be fake. QED.

It means that each and every anomaly in this category will be instantly dismised as 'pareidolia', without futher investigation.

I couldn't find the crying girl link. Which one is it?

Southern Writer said...

There's no "crying girl link." What I meant was that I didn't understand when the photographer, Matthew, said "I zoomed in to my sister's mate's little sister who was crying and I saw a face. You can see all the facial expressions and everything."

There's a crying girl in the photo (at least, *I* see one. You do, too, don't you?). I also see the apparition's face.

Matthew said he zoomed in on the crying girl, and saw a face. The crying girl is nowhere near the apparition's face, so I'm wondering if there is yet another face near the crying girl that I have overlooked, or if I simply don't understand Matthew's English.

Romulus Crowe said...

Ah, that might be down to the camera. Lots of general-purpose cameras now feature 'zoom' functions that take them from a massively wide angle view to something that's more reasonable. They usually have about 3x zoom, much more if you want to use digital zoom but that's awful.

I have a video camera that boasts 800x digital zoom. It's unusable at that setting. I can't keep it steady even on a tripod. The 30x optical zoom is good.

So he probably 'zoomed in' with a camera that doesn't zoom very far, while concentrating on the crying girl and forgetting about the rest of the shot.

We seem to have some very lax laws where camera descriptions are concerned. Autofocus doesn't always mean autofocus. Usually it means fixed focus, where a cheap lens is set so that anything from about four feet to infinity will be reasonably in focus. And 'zoom lens' is a wonderfully vague term in camera shops here.

So the 'zoom' he describes might well encompass the entire scene!

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