brian capleton


cognitive Pareidolia



Pareidolia, as currently most commonly understood, is the psychological act of perceiving some recognisable pattern of meaning in something, where none actually exists. Visually, for example, we might see a face in something such as a cloud formation, when actually, that meaning is put there by our own mind, our own brain. If you're not familiar with it, then you might want to Google for some examples.

There's hearing pareidolia, too, like the apparently meaningful voice or word you might hear in a random electronic noise. Pareidolia of any kind is due to the way the brain works. And in that respect, there's also the very common, but less recognised effect of the way the brain works, that we could call cognitive pareidolia.

That's when you think you are understanding something, or some experience, without realising that the apparent meaning in it, for you, is merely something happening in your own mind or brain function. Cognitive pareidolia can follow from sensory pareidolia, for example, if we hear an apparent word in random electronic noise such as a radio hiss, and are then convinced it's a message. Alternatively we might see an unusually human-like face in a cloud formation, and "see" it cognitively a sign from God.

But we don't need sensory pareidolia in order to fall for cognitive pareidolia. Any pre-established belief can create bias in how we interpret experience, and phenomena in the world. In cognitive pareidolia we understand and interpret something according to how we expect it to be understood, or perhaps want it to be understood, often seeing it as significant in some way, when it is not, or has entirely different significance.

In the view of modern neuroscience every thought we have, every emotion we experience, every facet of any way we understand or interpret anything or any experience, comes down to what is happening in the brain, as causal patterns of communication between networks of neurons.

Our brain functioning consists of the activity of these neural networks, and it's through what the brain has already established in how these connect and communicate, that our experiences, interpretations, and maner of understanding, arise. It's built into the way the brain works, because it works by establishing neural pathways, and pathways of cause and effect between neural networks. And most of that functioning is unconscious - it consists of functions of connectivity that happen out of our awareness.

So it's one of the things that modern professional illusionists exploit in the creating of illusions. People are subject to having their perceptions manipulated by illusionists precisely because of our default tendency to presume our perceptions are of things and truths separate from our own mind, rather than being manifestations of the content of our own mind and psychology. This is a psychological fact that lies behind cognitive manipulation and indeed some therapies, hypnosis, and the illusionists' and hypnotists' "structure of magic", as John Grinder and Richard Bandler called it.

Our cognitive preconditioning, and predspositions - or to put it simply, our conditioning - make us as susceptible to not seeing what is, as to seeing what is not. And nowhere does that happen more than in interpreting the world and our experience, through the filter of pre-established personal belief.

Here's a picture of a standing stone in an ancient stone circle in the UK:


Note how the outline of the stone at the top, mimicks the outline of the hill behind it, not just the gradient, but some of the details, too. This is a genuine, unadulterated photograph. You might say that's just coincidence, or that the stone was chosen by the ancients for that reason. It depends what you believe. It depends on your brain's cognitive functions. The fact is, we don't know, just from this evidence. Unless, that is, you also know something else about the ancients, and their stone circles, which tells you it's deliberate.

There's no visual pareidolia here. But there might be cognitive pareidolia, if you see some meaning here, that in fact, is absent. Or if you see mere coincidence, when in fact the matching of those outlines was deliberate.

The idea of acknowledging the natural surroundings of an architectural creation - which even a stone circle is - isn't so surprising. Here's another photo, this time, of a more recent architectural creation:


Note how the outline of the roof at the front, mimicks the summit of the hill to the left, behind it. Coinidence? You might say so, if you don't fully appreciate the work of the architect, or know more about the building.

What we're seeing here, is patterns, and pattern matching. It's patterns, and pattern matching that gives rise to pareidolia. Like seeing a face, or faces on this random lump of industrial plastic:


On the left you can see a grimacing face, and on the forehead of that face, is another, upside-down face, with a beard. Here it is, rotated and enlarged:


This is visual pareidolia, but won't be cognitive pareidolia unless you falsely believe something else that prevents you seeing it as a random effect of the plastic. Such as, for example, if you know or believe that the plastic lump was deliberately made this way, or if you believe that the appearance of the face is a sign, appearing from supernatural causes. Either way, whether you recognise it as visual pareidolia, or not, the face appears in a cognitive context.

Everything we experience, through our senses, isn't just experience. It's always put by the brain into a cognitive context. If it connects very easily into a pre-held cognitive context, that is dominant in the way we see the world and our experiences, then it easily becomes part of that. We tend to see it as evidence of what we already believe.

Illusionists - and actually, many other people too, from advertisement designers to attorneys-at-law - use this fact about our psychology to their advantage by exploiting pre-conditioning in their audience, through suggestion, and then playing on this effect.

A scientific theory or a scientific paradigm is a cognitive context. And so is a scientific opinion. And sometimes, as we'll see shortly, scientists forget the difference. The human brain fits all our experiences into a cognitive context, because experience, and cognition, or understanding, are all part of the same connected neural network called the human brain. Our whole experience of being, and all our understanding, as human beings, is a form of pareidolia, created by the brain, because it all works on complex "pattern recognition" by the brain, which is already conditioned and pre-configured by the past.

Here's a demonstration of an aural illusion that also exploits cognitive pareidolia, for musicians. We're looking at this melody: pareidolia

Here's a friendly organist playing this excercise with a few stops pulled out:

Now you might not notice anything unusual about that. And if you're a musician, and you don't notice anything unusual about it, then you're probably not really paying attention. Listen carefully. If you restart the recording after the organist stops playing, you'll notice the note she stops on, is the precisely the same as note she started on.

A shorter version for verifying the first and last notes is here:

In fact, this exercise could go on forever, without ever running out of keyboard, as it were, because actually, the sequence doesn't rise up the octaves of the keyboard in the way that it sounds as though it does. The melody just keeps going up and up, but without ever getting any higher.

What's going on here then?

You may have already deduced that this is based on something called the Shepard scale, if you are already familiar with that. The Shepard scale is a designed acoustical illusion. If you know this, you can then cognitively see-through this musical excercise, because you know it is an illusion.

But you can also experience how the brain still interprets what we are hearing here, by its own rules, despite that you can cognitively see through it, and know that it is an illusion. There is therefore a part of you that sees through the workings of your own mind. But that's not the end of the story.

This is a two-sided coin. One side of the coin is the simple scientific fact that like most musical tones, the tones here are not simple, single things, with no composite structure. On that side of the coin, everything about what is going on here, in this illusion, is in the manipulation of that internal composite structure of each tone. Because the fact is that our pitch-perception is affected by the internal composite structure of tones. Many people think musical pitch is an objective thing, a property of musical sounds, separate from the mind that perceives it. It's not. It requires the other side of the coin - the mind.

Most of us see rainbows in the same kind of way. There'll be the seven colours in the same order, and it will always be an arc shape. Many people can agree on the appearance of a given rainbow. The popular idea of "perfect pitch" is not unlike the idea of perfect rainbow recognition. It suggests concrete objectivity in something that in fact is not concretely objective at all. Its existence is intrinsically bound up in the mind that perceives it.

I'm not going to explain here how this musical illusion works technically, because the explanation is easy enough to find elsewhere, and that's not what this is about. The point is that whilst many people think musical pitch is something that exists outside their own mind, and independently of the workings of their own brain, this isn't the case. Musical pitch perception happens on the other side of the coin. It happens because there is an ear and a brain.

Human brains are very good at falling for their own cognitive pareidolia. For example, there is a giant "sculptured face" on the surface of Mars, that many people, fooled by their own pareidolia, believed to be evidence of early civilisation on Mars. Another classic example is the "fossil bacterium" found on the Martian meteorite ALH84001 in 1996:


This turned out to be most likely to have been caused by the gold-plating process that was applied in order to facilitate the electron microscopy. But to our mind, it looks immediately significant as a microscopic form of life. Sure, that's visual pareidolia, but it leads straight into cognitive pareidolia, with all kinds of ramifications to do with cosmology and the origins of life.

Part of this is “hardwired” in our brain. Our ability to recognise faces, for example, is hardwired in our brain by evolution. Part of the brain’s evolutionary function is to act as a “recognition machine”, that is able to recognise what "fits into" its already established ways and patterns of understanding.

But there is another part that is much more to do with our more recent thinking and learning. Thinking and learning also configures the brain, through neuroplasticity. All our experiences and thoughts are constantly changing the brain, changing how it works. And because we communicate we affect each other's brains, like one collective brain.

We've learned to hear musical scales. What we are hearing in the keyboard exercise is pretty much what we expect to hear given the auditory clues. But it's not really what is going on. Although our pitch recognition is based on our evolutionary sense of hearing, our understanding of what we are hearing - or rather our misunderstanding of it - is not so much from our deep evolutionary past, as from our more recent learning.

Of course, the scientist themselves wrapped up that instant recognition (or rather, mis-recognition) of the object in the picture above, in the more conceptual and intellectual idea that the object is “multi-segmented”. In scientific journals you can't simply say that it "looks like it might be a fossil life-form".

Cognitive paeidolia is the interpreting of things according to our pre-conditioning and expectations. There's an important element of expectation in what is going on. Our perceptions that are hardwired into our brain, expect to see faces. We expect to hear musical scales do what scales normally do. There is also a cognitive expectation in some scientists that we might find evidence of life on Mars, and even at some level there may be a desire to find it.

We human beings perceive everything through our own cognitive pareidolia. Even when we can see-through it. We cannot help it, because the only way we can understand anything, as a limited human being, is through the brain, and that's what the brain does.

Cognitive pareidolia is not just an intellectual or mental thing. It's emotional too. It's about our experience of being, and that is created through nature, entirely impersonally. Despite the apparent personalness of our emotions. And that's why the world isn't everything that it appears to be, to a personal mind.

In fact, it's not anything it appears to be. Because everything it appears to be, is created by nature through the principle of the brain. That's what creates our experience of it, our experience of being in it, our experience of self. Everything we know and experience is created through the principle of the brain, and without the understanding of that, there is no true understanding of anything.

© Brian Capleton 2016
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