Spooky faces appearing in photos or unearthly voices embedded in audio recordings – are these really proof of the paranormal? The following article aims to explain this phenomena:
As a team of paranormal investigators, we often get asked to review photographs that people have taken where they believe to have captured evidence of a ghost or spirit, asking us “Can you see the face in this photo?”. Unfortunately, the answer we nearly always have to give is “No”.
So why do some people think they can see faces in these photos? The answer is quite simple - there is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to see a vague or random image as something recognizable, such as a face. This is known as pareidolia (pronounced: par-i-doh-lee-a). The word is derived from the Greek words 'para', meaning something 'faulty, wrong, instead of', and the noun 'eidōlon', meaning 'image, form or shape'. Pareidolia is a type of 'apophenia', which is a more generalized term for seeing patterns in random data. It is also sometimes referred to as 'matrixing'.
Some common examples are seeing: a likeness of Jesus on a burnt piece of toast; animal shapes in clouds; an image of a man’s face on the surface of the moon; or seeing a face or figure in the photo of something totally natural like a textured wall, foliage, or within an 'orb'.
Many people thought images taken in 1976 by NASA’s Viking 1 mission showed a face on Mars that could have been the remains of an ancient civilization. However, as you can see from the more recent high resolution close-up taken in 2001 there is no face! It was just another case of pareidolia.
Even a few circles and a line are seen as a "face" quickly and without hesitation, despite it not bearing much resemblance to a real human face :-)
Why does Pareidolia happen?
There are a number of theories as to the cause of this phenomenon based on survival, such as the need for babies to identify a human face as their care giver from the moment they are born. Or the brain having evolved back in the day of cavemen to quickly identify a face at a distance or amongst foliage.
This case of pareidolia being a survival tool was made by Carl Sagan, an American cosmologist and author. In his 1995 book, "The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark," he argued that the ability to recognize faces from a distance or in poor visibility was an important survival technique. While this instinct enables humans to instantly judge whether an oncoming person is a friend or foe, he said that this could result in some misinterpretation of random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces.
Experts say pareidolia provides a psychological determination for many delusions that involve the senses (i.e. the brain trying to make sense of random information by seeking something it is already familiar with). They believe pareidolia could be behind numerous sightings of ghosts, UFOs, Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster and the hearing of disturbing messages on records when they are played backwards.
In 1968, the Latvian writer and intellectual Konstantīns Raudive detailed what he believed was the discovery of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) – messages from the dead hidden in recordings of white noise. EVP recording has become a popular technique with “ghost hunters”, and is often used as a means of trying to communicate with spirits, such as by asking a question, waiting, then playing back the recording to listen for a response. However EVP has been described by many modern-day academics as simply being "auditory pareidolia” – i.e. if a person listens to enough noise the brain will detect words, especially if there is an expectation to hear something, even when there is no intelligent source for them.
The Rorschach inkblot test even uses visual pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person's mental state. Since the cards have been designed without any specific image in mind, this is an example of "directed pareidolia."
When looking at all of the scientific theories on how pareidolia works on the mind it is interesting to note that the human face is one of the first images that is imprinted on a new born's mind. Can this be why our brains act in such a way when interpreting non-specific images or sounds
Pareidolia in Paranormal Investigation
The most common occurrences in the paranormal world are the countless examples of faces seen in pictures and the many examples of EVP recordings where sometimes complete sentences are heard faintly in the background of a sound sample prolifically playing white noise. While we are not saying that all examples we have come across can be classed as pareidolia it is our belief that the majority of files we have examined must be put in this category.
The most common type of photographic pareidolia we get asked to examine are that of the ‘orb’ phenomena. It is now widely understood that orbs are not paranormal – they are simply the product of airborne particles (dust, rain, insect, pollen, etc.) in the camera’s field of view caught in the flash and reflecting light back into the lens, causing specks of light to appear in the photo as ‘orbs’. In photography this is known as ‘backscatter’ or ‘orb artifacts’.
However we still hear examples of “Yes but this one has a face!” Our argument to this is that if the object had been caught in perfect focus and detail and the image resized to that of the ‘orb’ would you now so easily see a face? The answer to that has to be no. This is yet another instance of pareidolia working on our senses to perceive that much desired proof of the afterlife.
The image above is an example of many pareidolia orb photos found on the internet. You have to take into account that this picture was obviously taken at low light hence the increased pixelization in the image due to the camera increasing its ISO range and therefore compensating for missing pixels and filling in as best it can. The eye does the rest and sees a face in very much the same way that we see the man in the moon. An interesting phenomenon of pareidolia is that once the human mind has made up its mind it can see the face (or heard a voice in the case of EVP), it is then almost impossible to un-see it (or un-hear it).
During a recent “ghost hunt” at Woodchester Mansion by a small group of enthusiasts, a party member took the following photo. How many faces can you see in the four door panels?
This picture caused a fair amount of interest as more and more people were shown the picture. Comments made were as follows:-
“Yes I can definitely see faces”
“The one on the top right is definitely a boy”
“I can see an older man wearing a hat” (This referred to the bottom left panel)
The people were all of the opinion that they could see faces in the door frame yet nobody had seen them when in this particular part of the building.
Following the conversations IMPACT Paranormal Consultants went back to the area of the building to photograph each individual door panel and here are our results:
As you can see some smearing has occurred over the years on each of these panels and the human mind is interpreting these images as faces when photographed at a certain angle.
In summary we believe that pareidolia is responsible for the majority of evidence that we have been asked to study to date. We are not saying that it accounts for all claims of paranormal occurrences, however it should be looked at as a priority when trying to debunk photographic and audio evidence.