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How To Not Be Fooled – Part #3 – Pareidolia, Memory and Eye Witness Testimony

7 August 2009 3 Comments
How To Not Be Fooled – Part #3 – Pareidolia, Memory and Eye Witness Testimony

Have you ever looked up at the clouds and thought you could see shapes in them? Did you see the shape of the devil’s face in the smoke from the Twin Towers? Have you ever seen Jesus in a piece of toast? and bought same off of ebay? The brain is very good at detecting patterns in random data, even where there are none. It does this with visual data as well as auditory data. This phenomenon is called “Pareidolia” [LINK].

I’m no expert but it makes sense that we’d be best at recognizing faces better than say less frequently viewed patterns since there’s an obvious evolutionary advantage to that. So the next time you think you see a ghost in a smudged photo or the Jesus in the bark of a tree [LINK] realize that it’s just your visual cortex trying to help you out.

Same thing with that EVP nonsense “Electronic Voice Phenomenon”. Ghost hunters claim the white noise on a low quality recording is actually the voice of dead people “crossing over”. Sorry, just audio pareidolia .

Most people think they have a good memory but actually have a terrible memory. Our memory is NOT good at remembering, especially specifics. We remember generalist type things and our brain fills in the gaps. Often times our brain will make stuff up. Don’t believe me? Let’s check it.

First grab a pen and paper. You’re going to memorise a list of words then write down as many as you can in 60 seconds. Don’t cheat, here’s the list, time starts when you read the last word. Read each word once and out loud then minimize the browser window.

“sour, nice, candy, honey, sugar, soda, bitter, chocolate, good, heart, taste, cake, tooth, tart, pie”

STOP!!! look away and go write down as many words as you remember.

Ok, here’s a 2nd list, do the same thing:

“mad, wrath, fear, happy, hate, fight, rage, hatred, temper, mean, fury, calm, ire, emotion, enrage” *

If you’re done you can relax. We’ll get to the answers in a minute.

Memory is very malleable. Memories are stored in neural pathways within our brain, unless those pathways are revisited and re-activated they grow weak and the recollection grows fuzzy. The memory might even merge with another and make us think we remember something that never happened.

There are plenty of examples of studies of this phenomenon. Psychologist Ulric Neisser took this account from a student in 1986 right after the shuttle Challenger exploded:

    January 1986: “I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about the [explosion]. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching, which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.”And this account 3 years later from the same student:

    September 1988
    : “When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and were we both totally shocked. I was really upset and went upstairs to talk to a friend of mind and then I called my parents.”

Memories can also be implanted falsely into our minds through suggestion and there are many documented examples of this: Whilst under hypnosis Nadean Cool was made to believe she had been a member of a satanic cult as a child. This turned out to be false and she was awarded a few million. Beth Rutherford was made to remember that her father had raped her repeatedly. The father was disgraced and Beth was later found under medical exam to be a virgin at age 22.

In their paper, Loftus and Pickrell showed [LINK] they were able to “implant” a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall or large department store at about the age of five.

“We prepared a booklet for each participant containing one-paragraph stories about three events that had actually happened to him or her and one that had not.”

“The lost-in-the-mall scenario included the following elements: lost for an extended period, crying, aid and comfort by an elderly woman and, finally, reunion with the family.”

“in the two follow-up interviews six participants (25 percent) continued to claim that they remembered the fictitious event.”

That’s a statistically significant result. The lesson there; don’t trust your memory and don’t trust psychiatrists. Ironically eye-witness testimony in a trial is often used to trump circumstantial evidence!

Let’s get back to your memory test; take a look at your memorized word list, if you wrote down “sweet” or “anger” you’ve fallen victim to a false memory. Neither of those words were in the original lists.

* This is taken from Brian Brushwood’s lecture on memory which you can find here:

The image on this post is a portion of Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper. The “fool” connection is a little obscure but one of my favourite songs is “Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream. Eric Clapton played a guitar known as “The Fool” on this track.


  • Neil Kiernan said:

    E-mail me and I will send some evp that might change your mind. Your right Francis, 99% of the time it’s audio pareidolia, but imagine if that remaing 1% were real. Open your mind to the possibility.
    Neil Kiernan

  • Francis (author) said:

    My mind is open. If you present verifiable evidence, and adopt the Scientific Method to testing the hypotheses then maybe the area would progress. Failing that it’s all just bedtime stories.

  • robert said:

    Well Francis, the same scientific method and your community absolutely knew the sun traveled around the
    Earth and said Galileo was wrong with no proven method, the same community of yours before
    That said the earth was flat years before that, and your same community says ghosts fo not exist.
    Well, I got news for you, an open mind does not go with your community
    Which has been proven wrong since it s inception. Black holes and dark matter cannot be
    Universally accepted measured neither seen either, but does it mean the do
    Not exist? Evp is not always white noise. More often and it is a clear normal
    Audio recording heard audibally as well and answers your direct
    Questions. I have no white noise recordings what so ever. Only ones
    That are this way I speak of. I have nothing to prove to you or your community
    As you will both find out for yourselves one day just like you have since
    Science was born.

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