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Timeline: Pareidolia

U.S. Public Domain
A Rorschach test is one example of our eyes and minds finding familiar patterns in unfamiliar shapes. This is one way that we experience pareidolia.

In the past couple of episodes we’ve looked at quite a few audio experiments or illusions, exploring the limitations and wonderful abilities of our ears and mind. I’ve been joined by some friends from VPR, Brendan Kinney, Leslie Blount and Joe Tymecki. They volunteered to take part in these experiments and share their experiences with us.


James: Then, this is one I might do all by itself. I want you to listen to this noise and tell me what you hear.

Leslie: Okay.

Why don’t you do the same? We’ll listen to this audio together, focus for just a moment. Listen carefully. What did you hear?

Joe: It almost sounds like a little, tick-tick-tick sort of noise that I’m hearing in the background on top of the hiss.

Brendan: Well, first I heard rain, and then I heard static, and then I heard wind.

Leslie: That’s so funny ‘cause I heard static, rain and then I could hear the wind in it. But I could also hear kind of a heartbeat in it, a pulse.

Brendan: Oh.

Leslie: …just a little bit too.

What did you hear in that sound? The truth is the audio I played is simply computer generated white noise. It’s empty. There’s nothing there but static. However, many people listening to such audio will experience something; rain, wind, a heartbeat, some ticking or perhaps even a voice speaking in the noise. We call this phenomenon pareidolia. It’s the power of your brain to recognize patterns and apply known shapes onto unknown sounds and images; like seeing a face in a wall outlet, a shape in the clouds, Lincoln’s face in a burnt piece of toast or a heartbeat in the midst of empty static.

Brendan: It’s like your brain is trying to relate it to something that’s familiar.

James: And it’s also about expectations.

Brendan: Right.

James: I didn’t tell you whether there would be anything or not.

Leslie: Exactly.

James: You just expected there to be something so you were sitting there and, so, what did you expect to hear?

Brendan: Right.

Leslie: And if you had asked this first we might have just said static or rain.

Brendan: Yeah.

Your brain is hardwired to recognize patterns. Our senses are constantly in use, protecting us and helping us to understand our surroundings. Perhaps that’s the main reason we experience pareidolia, so we can sense danger and react as soon as possible. For instance, our minds are superfast at recognizing faces. We’ve clocked the human brain at 150 milliseconds for facial recognition. Usually we’re right, except when we’re not.

We do the same thing with sounds as well. Our minds will try to find meaning even when it isn’t expressly present. Psychologist Diana Deutsch has made an extensive study of the way we perceive and conceptualize sound. Many of the experiments we’ve looked at over the past few episodes have come from her research. In 1995 Deutsch created a process for exploring “Phantom Words.” In this audio sample, there is one phrase repeated but the stereo channels are offset in time. This creates a disorienting illusion and the mind starts to construct the sounds and syllables into different words.

I hear “no way” as clear as day, but others have reported hearing window, welcome, love me, rainbow, mango, Reno and many others.

What did you hear in the static or in Diana Deutsch’s phantom word experiment? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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