Photo by Ann Massey

In a field inundated with photographs, videos and recordings screaming out “supernatural,” it is important to remain focused and grounded to enable us to distinguish between pareidolia and a potentially paranormal anomaly.

So What Exactly Is Pareidolia?

It is a condition where the brain perceives patterns in imagery or sound where none exist. Visual pareidolia is where you would for example; see a face in a potato or a cloud, Jesus on a slice of toast or as supernatural images such as the Witch Stone at Blarney Castle.

Witch of Blarney (photo Blarney Castle)

Pareidolia has fascinated scientists for decades. Of course everyone is familiar with Hermann Rorscach’s inkblot test devised in the sixties, where a serious of random patterns were shown to a subject and they were asked to say the first thing that came in to their heads. The theory is that it would pull emotions from the subconscious and a psychiatrist could interpret the state of mind. Thankfully this theory is now widely disputed among academics.

Audio pareidolia is where a sound can be misconstrued, such as thinking messages can be heard in reversed musical recordings or mistaking a random sound as a voice, or white noise as a growl, as you would come across with EVP recordings.

How Does It Happen?

Essentially the frontal cortex of the brain sends signals to the posterior visual cortex. These signals literally augment any recognisable components reaching the brain and convert them into a familiar image such as a face.

It appears to be not a sign of an unbalanced mind, but a well wired brain, able to process random imagery rapidly.

Why Does It Happen And To Whom?

It used to be thought of as being unique to those with heightened religious beliefs or people like us, with an interest in the supernatural; however that is not really the case.

Studies have shown it occurs in those prone to being neurotic or with anxiety or negative personas. Again this is only a piece of a bigger jigsaw. The reason these demographics are more prone to pareidolia goes back to instinctive survival, fight or flight.

In these groups there is a more heightened sense of apprehension and expectancy, so the brain works faster to try and recognise a potential threat, pushing out images of danger that in reality are not there.

In The Paranormal Field

Because of the existence of this phenomenon, at Irish Paranormal Investigations we have a strict code of practice when it comes to evidence. With our own findings, we only use raw audio and image files when assessing data. There is nothing stand alone, evidence needs to be validated by location, time, environment and physical presence at some point in the location.

For the team to stand behind an EVP or photograph for example, there needs to be a general consensus and we would never ask a team member to stand by or speculate on a finding if they were not on site themselves as the margin for error is too great.

That said, opinions will always be forthcoming as we bounce theories around, This is how our research progresses and we will always welcome data for analysis. We cannot however, stand by and make a formal finding on third party evidence of any persuasion – that would be reckless.

Visual or audio pareidolia is most likely responsible for the vast majority of alleged paranormal ‘evidence.’ By ruling out as much pareidolia as we can with our code of practice, the small nuggets of unexplained findings are exciting and motivate us to research further into the paranormal field.

Published by Ann Massey McElroy

Published author and blogger specializing in Irish Folklore, Dark History and Hauntings. Travel Expert working in Travel and Tourism. Ireland Editor at and paranormal investigator. Irish Folklore Consultant for books, comics, films and video games, TV, Interviews, Guest Speaker.

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