Dec 10 2008

Pareidolia In The Brain

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Comments: 25

Skeptics have long argued that pareidolia, the tendency to see familiar patterns in random stimulae, is in the brain, meaning that it is a brain phenomenon. This is not exactly what we meant, however.

Pamela Latrimore believes that an aparition of the Virgin Mary has appeared on an MRI scan of her brain.  She also hopes that others might believe this, as she is selling her scan on Ebay to raise money for her medical bills.

This is not a particularly impressive example of pareidolia. Mary sightings are common, perhaps, because it is relatively easy to provoke pareidolia for this type of image. All that is needed is a downward curve that can look like a hooded bent head. Sometimes there is a face present, sometimes not. In this case there are some dots that the brain can fit into a very crude face. It doesn’t take much for our visual processing cortex to match a pattern to something recognizable. Picaso was evidence of this – he could evoke the impression of human figure with a single curved line.

I also note that this MRI scan is upside down. That may not be apparent to someone not used to looking at them, but it struck me immediately.  The image is cropped so you can only see a bit of the writing around the image (which typically contains information about the patient and technical information about the scan), but I think you can tell from this that the writing is upside down. This is convention, of course – there is no objective up or down for these coronal views, sliced through the head horizontally. But the option of looking at the scan right-side-up or up-side-down doubles the chance for pareidolia.

This reminds me of one day as a student when I got a little bored looking at slides of microscopic sections of various organs. These slides are filled with random shapes and squiggles – a cornucopia of pareidolia. I became distracted looking for faces and other familiar shapes in the histology of the liver and pancreas. It was not difficult. Later I attended a lecture of a pathologist who had collected slides over the years of interesting microscopic pareidolia. My memory of this is now faded. I could not find anything like it with a quick search on Google. If anyone knows of something like this let me know in the comments, it would be good to link to.

One final thought – I wonder how far knowledge of pareidolia has penetrated into the broader culture. I would think the internet would have increased this substantially.  There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of new cases of gullible pareidolia, however. Sounds like a question ripe for a survey.

25 responses so far

25 thoughts on “Pareidolia In The Brain”

  1. daedalus2u says:

    This suggests a lucrative side business for those with MRI scanners. Take a scan (which is 3-D so there are many, many degrees of freedom) then search through it at various angles, orientations, and resolutions until an appropriate image is “found”. You should be able to find most any image that you want, sort of like the Bible Codes.

    Couple that with a psychic saying that he/she can “feel” an image of [pareidolia object XYZ], pay $$$ with a money back guarantee if the image is not found.

    How long before we see this scam? Probably less than a month.

  2. zntneo says:

    I had a professor of social psychology who i guess has never heard of the word pareidolia. In fact she made a huge goof in class in my opinion when she tried to say that maybe playing back different songs actually might be signs of subliminal messages, no its pure auditory pareidolia although she did say the next day something about how expectancy can make one “see’ things in random noise but never used the word pareidolia.

  3. durnett says:

    Looks like a Romulan warship to me, but maybe I just have Romulans on the brain…

  4. I don’t know… I think this one was pretty good as far as pareidolia goes. My brain, at least, fools me into seeing quite a detailed face with a hood.

  5. MKandefer says:

    Was that before or after you were primed to expect it?

  6. You’d think people would be innoculated against pareidolic errors or perception since most of us played the childhood game of looking for images in passing clouds, but in those games we imagined seeing mundane things: a horse, a bush, a flower, a 1973 AMC Gremlin X, etc.

    The biggest clue in the example of pareidolia posted with this entry is not that an image was seen, but WHAT was seen – that in this case it’s a religious image, that of the Virgin Mary, an image that holds considerable meaning for the beholder. Never mind that it looks just as much like the forensic composite drawing of the Unibomber before he was caught or anyone else in a hoodie, or that it offers zero clue as to gender.

    To see ‘somebody in a hoodie’ holds no additional meaning, has no ‘Wow!’ factor. But to ‘see’ the Virgin Mary, well…. that’s something! Gosh, I’ve been touched, nudged, acknowledged by the transcendent! I am more now than I was before I saw it!

    Seeing Elvis in a potato chip works nearly as well, BTW.

  7. cwfong says:

    What I see is a strange place to look for a Virgin, but maybe that’s just me.

  8. SaraJ says:

    I’m not sure what this says about me, but I swear I see a vagina right underneath the “Virgin Mary”.

  9. HHC says:

    Good thinking Zntneo! Know that social psychology is not neuropsychology or medical psychology. I am sure radiologists would be flattered that an MRI could be equated with Mary, the divinity in humanity.

  10. Jim Shaver says:

    cwfong said:

    What I see is a strange place to look for a Virgin, but maybe that’s just me.

    You were supposed to look inside the red circle, cw! 🙂

  11. PaulG says:

    This is just like a TV show we used to have in the UK, back in the 1970’s, where viewers used to send in pictures of vegetables that used to look like their genitals.

    Now don’t tell me this isn’t some sort of evolution…

  12. jdclews says:

    Actually I can definitely see (and “see”) an old fashioned bearded man – I am sensing (and the image proves it) that this woman is a reincarnation of King James 1! OMG – this woman is responsible for the bible as we know it…

  13. arid says:

    I know exactly what you mean about the ‘images’ in tissue slides. I spent a summer studying phytoplankton and started seeing rhinos and aliens in diatoms.

  14. superdave says:

    “which is 3-D so there are many, many degrees of freedom”
    Nah, just 6. But 6 is plenty.

  15. I dropped acid once and saw a rhino in a Volkswagon.

  16. did i post that or just think it?

  17. Joe says:

    If the MRI were autographed by Mary, I would buy it to go along with my autographed photo of Jesus.

  18. daedalus2u says:

    superdave, you can “look” at any cross section at any arbitrary angle. That is far more than 6 degrees of freedom. If we limit the resolution to 1 degree and 1 mm slices, for a brain ~14cm diameter, that is 140 slices per angle. Because there are 3 orthogonal angles, the total number of slices that can be derived from a single 3-D scan are 140*90*90*90 for a total of ~100,000,000 separate and unique images.

    To consider it another way, because the slices can be made at any arbitrary angle, the first slice (which is tangent to the brain surface) can start at any point on the brain surface characterized by the 3 angles that uniquely locate that tangent point.

    It is inconceivable to me that in 100,000,000 images of neuroanatomy, that images suggestive of something couldn’t be found.

  19. thecardiffgiant says:

    I thought I saw a flux capacitor.

  20. thecardiffgiant says:

    By the way, although he doesn’t use the term pareidolia, Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics deals with these kinds of patterns in explaining how comics art does what it does. He uses the classic example of the face in the electrical socket among others.

  21. Elwood says:

    Steve, this image is in an axial plane, not a coronal plane.
    But it is upside-down, with convention placing the anterior (i.e. eyes) at the top of the axial images. Makes me wonder how Ms Latrimore found Mary in the first instance… or perhaps Mary found her??
    I didn’t know it was called pareidolia, but when I started ultrasound.. I just kept seeing seals morphing into dogs in real-time imaging in the abdomen.

  22. godkillzyou says:

    Isn’t that Kenny Loggins?

  23. Ruth says:

    It’s a ‘Wii me’ Mary!! Sorry, I got so distracted by Wii Mary I couldn’t concentrate on the article – seems from a few of the above I’m not alone.

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