Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 19, 2014

A Quick Post on Pareidolia

First, the subject of this post: A study into pareidolia has won an Ig Nobel Prize. (If you don’t know what the Ig Nobels are, go to the link and read.) This study has six authors and is published in the journal Cortex: “Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia.” (sorry, it’s behind a paywall)

Why am I posting about this? Well, some of my run-ins over the years have involved Mike Bara, most notably with respect to a lunar ziggurat (his belief in a step pyramid on the far side of the moon). The argument, which took place over the course of several months, never involved pareidolia, but in the course of the argument, Mike made this statement:

“The actual truth is that there is no such thing as “Pareidolia.” It’s just a phony academic sounding word the debunkers made up to fool people into thinking there is scholarly weight behind the concept. It’s actually a complete sham. … The word was actually first coined by a douchebag debunker (is that my first “douchebag” in this piece?! I must be getting soft) named Steven Goldstein in a 1994 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Since then, every major debunker from Oberg to “Dr. Phil” has fallen back on it, but it is still a load of B.S. There is no such thing.”

In other words, very explicitly stating that pareidolia does not exist. He thinks it’s a made-up term (it’s not, or it isn’t any more made up than any other word in language) for a made-up thing. When pressed about this point, Mike has claimed that his stance is at least partly based on the “fact” that there are no scientific studies that talk about pareidolia. That there are neurological disorders about people seeing things that aren’t real, but nothing on pareidolia.

Even if that were true (it’s not — at the very least, the above-mentioned paper proves that), just because a term is not described in medical studies with clinical research (and it is, the above-mentioned paper proves that) does not mean the phenomenon is not real.

I’m looking out my window now and I see a cloud that looks exactly like a mouse, complete with two ears, a snout, an eye, and a long body with tail. That doesn’t mean there is a giant mouse in the sky, nor does that mean that my brain is subject to some rare neurological disorder. It means I’m like every other person: My brain subconsciously (or consciously sometimes) tries desperately to fit randomness into something familiar.

That’s what pareidolia is, and it is a real phenomenon regardless of what you want to call it and regardless of whether scientific studies use the term or have researched it. (As a side-note, there are plenty of real phenomena and real things that have not been specifically and formally researched – much less published – in the broad disciplines of science. I’m in the midst of writing several research proposals at the moment, and a key part to these is past work — in several cases, there simply isn’t any, I’ll be the first person to study them. That’s part of the point of science.)

Now, if Mike happens to see this post and deign to respond, I suspect he will claim it’s one study, or it’s done by skeptics, or some such thing, and continue to deny that pareidolia exists. Why? I of course cannot know the workings of his mind, but I would suspect that it’s because that admission would then require a re-evaluation of most of what he claims, since much of his “evidence” for ancient aliens on the moon and Mars and elsewhere is simply pareidolia. Such as the tank or airplane hanger on the moon, or cities and faces on Mars. And he’s unwilling to do that, so he fights very hard to defend his claim that pareidolia is not only a made up term, but a made up phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

Remember that the next time you see Micky Mouse on Mercury, or a smiley face with a colon and close-parenthesis : )

Side-Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update on my silence lately. I’m still very busy. I’m in the middle of proposal-writing season and just submitted a grant proposal on Wednesday, have another due in 2 weeks, and two more due three weeks after that. Plus, I’m changing jobs, which means desperately trying to tie up several projects on one end while starting others on the other end. I am very much hoping to get back to things after the October 3 proposal is due, but I’m not sure yet if that’ll be when everything calms down or if it’ll be a bit longer.



  1. You realise the “mouse” you see in the sky is the projection of one of the pan-dimensional hyperbeings that had this planet built in the first place don’t you? 😉

    On a more serious note, keep up the excellent work.

    Comment by tuataradude — September 19, 2014 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

    • So, instead of being pastaferians, we should be rodentiarians?

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 19, 2014 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  2. So, pareidolia isn’t really there — skeptics have merely constructed the concept to give form to a stimulus pattern that appears to correspond to their preconceptions. Well done, Mike Bara! Do you think maybe this psychological process might also occur in other contexts? (Maybe it’s so common that it might be useful to invent a term for it?)

    Comment by Yakaru — September 20, 2014 @ 3:02 am | Reply

    • ‘Zactly.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 20, 2014 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

  3. An inventention of skeptics? Has Bara never heard of Rorschach ink-blots?

    Searching JSTOR, it does seem scientists don’t use the term “pareidolia” much, at least not in article titles, preferring to describe rather than label the phenomenon. See the subtitle of this Cerebral Cortex paper (which does use “pareidolia” in the body):

    The Potato Chip Really Does Look Like Elvis! Neural Hallmarks of Conceptual Processing Associated with Finding Novel Shapes Subjectively Meaningful

    (There is a voluminous academic literature on “conceptual processing” and “conceptual priming.”)

    Comment by terrythecensor — September 20, 2014 @ 10:42 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the reference.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 20, 2014 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

  4. Am I seeing things, or did I actually receive a post from Dr. Stuart Robbins? Ah, it’s probably just my imagination…

    Seriously, no problem. You have to pay for necessities, so do that first. We can wait for your next podcast.

    Comment by Rick K. — September 20, 2014 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  5. Isn’t EVERYTHING that science has shown to exist, considered a bunch of made up crap? From creationists, to deniers everywhere, it is all a bunch of made up lies because “my percieved truth” is better.

    Living in your own little world where you make up your own little facts, and believing only that which you “just know” is real, is the hallmark of the ignoramus. Thus creationism and science denial, the corellation is strong between the two.

    Comment by shelldigger — September 20, 2014 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

    • I realized after I walked away that this particular guy you are referring to probably falls within the crank camp. The cranks fill their own little niche at the fringes of the creationist/science denier chart. Same tendencies, same chart, just different plot points.

      Comment by shelldigger — September 20, 2014 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

  6. Stuart,

    No problems with having to wait till October, I understand just how real life can get in the way sometimes.

    Comment by Graham — September 20, 2014 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  7. There’s been a good article covering the history of Mars paredolia appearing on the News.com.au website. The author makes it quite clear that all the claims to find ‘artifacts’ in photographs of the Martian surface are just that. Sadly most people will dismiss the article simply because it appears in the ‘lamestream press’


    Comment by Graham — October 28, 2014 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for posting.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 29, 2014 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  8. The oldest one a quick Google Scholar found was Plank, Robert. “Projection in topographic names.” Names 6.2 (1958): 80-87.

    … The former, also known as pareidolia,5 is the one that most people have experienced.
    The essence of the phenomenon is that an impression is endowed by the imaginative
    viewer with a meaningful structure which it does not in itself possess. …

    Claiming 1994 seems to show insufficient research …

    Comment by Kai Henningsen — November 23, 2014 @ 9:57 am | Reply

    • There are lots of references older than 1994. But, insufficient research is nothing new for pseudoscientists.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — November 23, 2014 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  9. But Cameras are not subject to Pareidolia. Therefore NASA’s reasoning is irrational.
    There are some images from Mars which objectively imply that the objects in question show signs which suggest that they were designed by an Intelligence.
    Some of the images I have seen are just too structured to be dismissed outright.
    Let NASA address each instance on a case by case basis.
    To state that every picture from Mars which contains anomalies is simply the result of Pareidolia is an Insult.
    It is almost as if there are those who trying to make others believe that this thing called ‘Pareidolia’ is a condition, illness, or an affliction which One can catch like a communicable disease.

    Comment by Douglas Caines — November 26, 2018 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

    • You are correct: cameras are not subject to pareidolia. However, have you ever looked at pictures or drawings of optical illusions? Our brains fill in what’s not there and make it seem to us that something actually is there after all. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeing the illusion in person or indirectly–you’re still using your eyes and brain to see it.

      There’s also the problem of most cameras showing us everything in two dimensions. Our brains have to fill in the third dimension of a still photo. Try taking a picture of something with a 1 MP camera, then take the same picture with a 5 MP camera or better. Look at the photo in Photoshop or similar, then zoom in on each, in roughly the same area of the photos. You’ll notice the 5 MP photo will stay sharp at larger percentages, long after the 1 MP turns into pixels.

      A lot of early pictures taken in space used rather low resolution cameras, even before CCDs. Now we have extremely powerful, high-resolution cameras we can put on board our probes, and they take up little space or weight. This allows us to get vastly improved pictures of things we saw from earlier photos, which lets us know that the “designed by intelligence” objects obviously aren’t. Humans are used to seeing buildings and such on Earth, so we unconsciously look for the same thing on other planets, even if we have to really squint to find them. I know I’ve done it, so I’m not surprised that others might have done so as well.

      When we see pareidolia, it’s fun to enjoy them, but we shouldn’t try to convince ourselves that they’re real when they’re not. For example, when I look at craters on the Moon, either through a telescope or in pictures, I see their shadows as if the surface inside each crater is curving up, rather than down. I really have to work to see them properly. I know it’s pareidolia, but my brain refuses to cooperate unless I force it to do so. When I finally see the craters curving down, I have to laugh at my own flawed eyesight fooling me that way.

      Comment by Rick K. — November 27, 2018 @ 9:37 am | Reply

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