Have you ever seen familiar and improbable shapes in those puffy white cumulus clouds as they pass overhead? Notice the squirrel or dinosaur in the image to the right. Some of you may have you seen the recent American Express commercial that portrays items positioned in such a way that we perceive them as sad or happy faces (much like the bathtub fixture below). Now notice the “Hand of God” in the NASA image below and to the right, taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This picture shows energized particles streaming from a pulsar, in a field of debris from a massive supernova. Many of us, instinctively see in this image what looks like the wrist and hand of a person (or God as the name of this nebula implies). Speaking of God, on the internet there are many more explicit examples of religious imagery in much more benign items such as tree trunks, clouds, pancakes or tortillas. This tendency is not limited to the visual sense. We make the same type of errors with auditory information (as is evident in backmasking in popular music). These tendencies, which are in fact illusory, are a consequence of our neural circuitry.
Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli. This tendency is called pareidolia. It is also referred to as patternicity. This tendency is so ubiquitous that a projective personality test (the Rorschach Inkblot Test) relies on and “interprets” this inclination.*
It has been suggested that our ancestors, the ones who assigned agency to things that went bump in the night (perceiving vague data as a threat) responded in a way that facilitated survival. Those who ignored the stimuli were more likely to be predated and thus not pass on their genes. Carl Sagan noted in his classic book, The Demon Haunted World that this tendency is likely linked to other aspects of individual survival. He wrote:
“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.
As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none. We assemble disconnected patches of light and dark and unconsciously see a face. The Man in the Moon is one result”(Sagan 1995: 45).
Michael Shermer wrote of patternicity in the December 2008 issue of Scientific American Magazine. In that article Shermer wrote that scientists have historically treated patternicity as an error in cognition. More specifically he noted that this tendency is a type I error, or a false positive. A false positive in this context, is believing that something is real when, in fact, it is not. Shermer discussed a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society entitled “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour” by biologists Kevin R. Foster (Harvard University) and Hanna Kokko (University of Helsinki). These scientists tested the hypothesis that patternicity will enhance survivability using evolutionary modeling. Shermer wrote “They demonstrated that whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity.” The implications Shermer wrote: “…believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life.”
It is a double edged sword it seems. Not only has this tendency entertained us and likely facilitated our very survival as a species, but it may in fact serve as the basis of our individual inclinations toward superstitious thinking. Shermer wrote:
“Through a series of complex formulas that include additional stimuli (wind in the trees) and prior events (past experience with predators and wind), the authors conclude that “the inability of individuals—human or otherwise—to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. From here, the evolutionary rationale for superstition is clear: natural selection will favour strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.”
Yet again this is an example of how our intuitive brain can lead us astray!
* The Rorschach inkblot test, along with most projective measures in the field of psychology, have fallen out of favor due to poor reliability and validity.