What do all supposedly haunted locations have in common? They are all dark, visually noisy and have many ambiguous stimuli. All this is perfect for a phenomenon known as Pareidolia. This is a commonplace phenomenon that many of us have likely experienced. Have you ever heard a word in audio that’s meant to be unintelligible, or saw a face in randomly placed objects? The tendency for the human brain to pick out intelligible stimuli in vague stimuli has been studied for decades and has been discussed for even longer.
So now that we know what Pareidolia is, why does it happen? Pareidolia likely evolved as a result of pattern recognition in early humans. When early Homosapiens were seen as prey by predators, being able to quickly identify a hidden predator was important. There is a large cost-benefit to being able to detect if a predator is truly present. Accidently seeing a predator in an ambiguous setting when there is nothing present is low cost and therefore has no negative consequences. However, thinking you saw a predator and there actually being a predator is a lifesaving advantage, so Pareidolia likely evolved from this large cost-benefit.
Now that the what and why have been established, we must finally discuss the how. How does the brain cause this phenomenon to happen? It is believed that the brain region responsible at least in part is the fusiform gyrus. This region of the brain is not only found in humans but also many great apes have neurons responsible for facial recognition and other objects in general. Pattern recognition is an important function of the human brain and the brain has become highly efficient at this task. An inadvertent side effect of this is seeing things that are not actually there whether it be visually (faces) or even audibly (words).
Jordan See, Writer