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Imaginary Birds and Ghosts PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

ghostslightsPareidolia takes many different forms. It’s the tendency of certain individuals to see images of animals or faces in clouds, to perceive shapes where there are none, or to hear hidden messages in recordings when they’re played in reverse. Another currently popular variety of this delusion is the “orbs” craze that we handled several places here on SWIFT. To refresh your data-base on such matters, see www.randi.org/jr/051002.html and do a search on the word “conditioner” to bring up the item. Then go to www.randi.org/jr/051702.html and search for “opinion” for the specific item. There are many more – 70+ – “orb” references in SWIFT archives.

moiRunning through a mass of CDs that I have at the JREF, I came upon two examples of the visual sort of pareidolia which I’ll share with you here. The first is the result of a camera using a flash, but being jerked just as the exposure was made. The photo shown (click to enlarge) was taken of what is perhaps a printer in the right foreground, with a woman seated beside the camera – her reflection shows in the window. You can see that the camera went through a tight twist that resulted in a sort of spiral being scanned onto the film by lights, while the shutter was open, but before the flash fired. The indicator light on the machine provided the red spiral, starting in the light itself, then continuing to trace its image after the flash went off. The same thing happened with the faint spiral that was traced by a light reflecting off the chrome-plated rod that goes out of the back of the machine. And, if you look very carefully, you’ll see my face just to the left of the yellow spiral, and down a bit!

ghostbird1

Hey, I’m just as good at this game as any other woo-woo!

The other photo shows a woman – mercifully disguised here – in her home, which she told us was being attacked by a huge “spirit bird,” and she submitted the photo as proof. Looking at the basic photo, you’ll see nothing, but in the enlargement you just might make out the avian monster she was able to see immediately when she saw the print. I outlined it for you in the third photo. Now, you see how easy this sport is?

ghostbird2ghostbird3But seriously, these folks really believe they’ve found significance where there is none, and they can get themselves worked up into a frenzy very easily. They often genuinely fear that something is “after” them, and resort to charms and incantations for protection. Ever since the art of photography was invented, it has been so, and now digital photography has taken on its own set of spooky attributes.

Will this never end…?

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It won't
written by julianrod, December 21, 2008
It would've been nice to see a bigger picture of the girl, even if you black out her face entirely... I'd like to see the "bird"
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written by JeffWagg, December 21, 2008
The photos next to the photo of the girl are blow-ups of that particular image, the first being un-retouched and the second being enhanced to show where the "bird" is.
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written by BillyJoe, December 21, 2008
What do you call it when someone can't see something that's staring them right in the face. smilies/cool.gif
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written by Willy K, December 21, 2008
If one of these Pareidolia-idiots sat on a camera while the shutter snapped would they claim to see the gates of hell in the photo? Maybe the open jaws of Satan? Maybe they'd see their brain. smilies/cheesy.gif

The only thing dumber than a person who thinks they see something that is only in their mixed-up heads is someone who believes them.
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written by Roo, December 22, 2008
Pareidolia - sounds almost exactly like "paranoia" to me.
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written by yarro, December 22, 2008
I too suffer from pareidolia.
When I look at a photograph of myself, I see this atractive, good humoured and sucessful bloke.
Then my wife comes along and snaps me back to reality.
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written by mjh937, December 22, 2008
Willy K,

I see things in these photos and I do not appreciate being called dumb (even if I am). I just know enough to appreciate the photos for the interesting phenomena they are. Just because something looks like a giant green bird does not mean it is one. I find it odd that some people have an easier time believing that they are being attacked by giant birds than that they took a picture of a tree that had an unusual avian shape.
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written by Kuroyume, December 22, 2008
Pareidolia is not something for woo-woos or idiots. This is a common occurence. My brain sees faces in patterns and animals in clouds. It has something to do with a slightly overworking pattern recognition system. As Carl Sagan hypotheticized, seeing faces in non-related circumstances may be an evolutionary trait for facial recognition (of parents, family, humans (to distinguish from, say, a predator)). It is strong enough, that even when we know there isn't really a face we might see one.

The woo comes in when you then believe this stuff has significance or reality - such as seeing Jesus or the virgin Mary in toast. That I don't go for.
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written by BillyJoe, December 22, 2008
Sorry, the first quote was by mjh937 to Willy.
Congratulations mjh. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by hopfen, December 22, 2008
Randi writes:
Pareidolia takes many different forms. It’s the tendency of certain individuals to see images of animals or faces in clouds, to perceive shapes where there are none, or to hear hidden messages in recordings when they’re played in reverse.

Just to be clear about the topic, Randi's casual definition is a bit too sweeping.
Humans are pattern-seeking animals. It's an evolved survival skill, and very useful. Of course, we can't turn it off, which is why we see familiar shapes in clouds.
When speaking of pareidolia, it should always be made clear that the phenomenon refers to random image or sound patterns being interpreted as significant to the viewer or listener with no real basis for such an interpretation.
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written by stomsic@telusplanet.net, December 22, 2008
That's one mean looking bird.
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written by BillyJoe, December 22, 2008
A Johnny-come-lately
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written by Willy K, December 22, 2008
written by mjh937, December 22, 2008
Willy K, I see things in these photos and I do not appreciate being called dumb (even if I am).


MJH937 - I was not addressing you personally. I hope you notice that your user name was not in my posting... as it is now. smilies/wink.gif

All Humans have brains have the same visual processing limitation, it seeks patterns, especially a "face" pattern, when there is not enough data to eliminate ambiguity.

Many people have learned about this phenomena, as you apparently have. I consider someone "dumb" when they ignore what both you and I have learned.

Dumb folks continue to believe that the images they perceive are real. The really dumb people will believe someone else has seen something without examining it for themselves. smilies/cry.gif

Willy K
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written by mjh937, December 23, 2008
Willy K,

I did not take it personally. I just wanted to point out that intelligent people can also see things that are not there. I hoped that you had just not worded your reply as clearly as you had intended. Your clarification shows that I was right and you had not meant to call anyone dumb just because they see something. I agree that anyone who believes everything they see in photographs without any research is dumb. In addition to pareidolia a skillfull photoshopper can be very convincing.
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written by BillyJoe, December 23, 2008
mjh,

I just wanted to point out that intelligent people can also see things that are not there.

I also hope that you have not worded your reply clearly.

I mean, there is a bird shape there right?
It's just not an actual bird.

Dumb people do not see anything at all.
Intelligent do see what is there.
Deluded people see it as well but think it's real.

Are we all on the same page?

(Or haven't expressed myself clearly? smilies/grin.gif)

BJ
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written by dr pepper, December 25, 2008
Our pattern seeking facilities can be specialized for the needs of the individual. For instance, Stephen J Gould wrote about a trip to Kenya to visit the Leakeys' camp. They went on a hike in which crewmembers kept pointing out bits of hominid bone on the ground. Try as he might, they all looked like just more rocks to him. On the other hand, he found scores of snail fossiles that were totally invisible to his hosts.
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written by mjh937, December 27, 2008
BillyJoe,

I stand by my statement. I see trees and branches, which are there. I also see the shape of a bird, which I intellectually know is not there (especially as it is green and huge). I think we are all on the same page since we all agree just because something resembles a gigantic green bird does not mean that a giant green bird exists.

I must admit however that it is at least as convincing as most the UFO and Sasquatch photos I have seen. Hmmm, perhaps those are not real either...nah, they have to be real. I have seen the photos that prove it. (And before I get flamed the last two sentence are typed with tongue firmly in cheek!)
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written by BillyJoe, December 27, 2008
Yeah, we all have our nuances in a knot and we all agree.
What a nice big happy family!

smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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