Beware Pareidolia in Ghost Hunting

by JoHarrington

Pareidolia is one of the great banes of paranormal research. It rears its ugly head most often in ghostly images, but can also strike during the investigation.

The human mind is great at finding patterns. It's our great strength, allowing babies to recognize their parents and scientists to make world-changing discoveries.

But it has its downside too, and the big one there is pareidolia. For ghost hunters, not guarding against it can open up a world of ridicule. Even when it's not proved to be present.

Pareidolia is the fact of discerning faces or other seemingly significant shapes, when nothing is actually there, but the random background conditions to suggest them.

Pareidolia T-Shirt

Pareidolia in Paranormal Pictures

The mind can so easily trick us into believing that we're seeing something not there. It's an illusion, but a perfectly natural one.

Last night, a group of friends and I were having hours of fun debunking purportedly paranormal photographs. 

We had an eclectic mix of views about ghosts, all represented with respect for each other.  Some of us believed that ghosts existed, but one thought that ghosts could not be captured on camera.  The rest didn't think that there was life after death, and certainly not spirits on Earth.

For the former, debunking pictures was a quest with an agenda.  Personally, I think that the majority can be explained away.  But if 99% of real ghost photographs can be explained by other means, then that renders the final 1% extremely interesting indeed.

For the latter, the case was more clear cut.  There wasn't a ghost in that picture, so what suggested that there was? 

Pareidolia was the first thing that any of us checked, often with hilarious results.  Take the goblin in the picture below for a start.

Image: Baleroy Mansion, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Image: Baleroy Mansion, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Can you see it?   Peer at the picture for several seconds, the goblin may well present itself shortly.

At least it did to us.  In the full knowledge that there was a goblin there, one by one we declared that we could see it.  After all, debunking any picture relies upon finding the entity in question, in order to work out what is really there.

Unfortunately, it turned out that we'd all found different goblins.  Our, ahem, expertly drawn pictures demonstrated this beautifully.

Image: Goblin Number Two
Image: Goblin Number Two
Image: Goblin Number One
Image: Goblin Number One
Image: Goblin Number Three
Image: Goblin Number Three

You'd not be mistaken for thinking that we're all just finding random faces in the pattern on the rug.  This was pure pareidolia.  We were finding that goblin face so that we could declare pareidolia.

The case was made complete, when it was realized that the story had been misread.  We weren't even looking for a goblin.  That was a totally different story!  But it does show how three people, primed to find a goblin, delivered the goods.

Just for the record, we were supposed to be looking at the cursed chair and the giant fish instead.  Ghostly mist or ectoplasm is the usual explanation.  It was merely the giant fish, as we tried to guide our fellows to our own personal goblin face.

Then there was the ghost of Edward Jenner, or a barracked soldier in the doctor's attic. 

Image:  The Ghost of Edward Jenner (or a Soldier)
Image: The Ghost of Edward Jenner (or a Soldier)

Once my friend had pointed out that the 'ghost's' trousers matched the color of the walls, and the head had been dismissed as something stacked in that loft, we were convinced that this was pareidolia. 

We could all see the ghost sitting there, our eyes had been tricked. Our brains had filled in the gaps, in that particular arrangement of light, shade and items on show, in order to recreate a human form.

But what was suggesting an arm on the left hand side?   I thought that it might be a print on the window blinds or curtains.  Someone else thought that there may be a picture there.  Pareidolia struck again.

Image:  It's a girl!
Image: It's a girl!
Image:  It's definitely a girl!
Image: It's definitely a girl!
Image: No! It's a Knight on Horseback!
Image: No! It's a Knight on Horseback!

This was all done with much laughter; and in the full knowledge that we were either tricking our brains to see what was there, or becoming so lost in our own pareidolia, that we couldn't see anything truly anymore.

You might be thinking by now, 'Forget the picture on the curtains!  There's a man sitting in that chair!'

No, there's not.  There's not even a chair.  Look again.  If you're struggling to see past the patterns produced by your brain, start at the top.  Can you see the corner in the roof panels?  Follow that down, until you grasp that the ghost's crotch and legs are created by the corner of the room.  His enormous pelvic area is suggested by two walls meeting there.

It's exacerbated by the fact that those 'walls' are actually thin, painted panels of plasterboard.  There's a rogue panel leaning up against walls of the same color, in that corner.

The 'chair' is suggested by the leg of a table on the right-hand side; and the background on whatever print is on that curtain, or window blinds, or picture to the left.  Light is streaming through the window, turning more of that print into the ghost's chest.

Look closely at the head.  It's too indistinct to call it completely, but it looks to me like a rag hanging from a hook.  Or something else stacked there. 

I believe in ghosts, but I also believe in pareidolia.  This image, to my mind, is pure pareidolia and an excellent example of why ghost hunters need to watch out for it.

How Paranormal Investigators Guard Against Pareidolia

Step number one is to be aware that it exists; step number two is to check your evidence and stories to see if it could be present.

Every ghost hunter wants to get the piece of definitive evidence, which convinces the whole world that ghosts exist.  That will never happen, if a charge of pareidolia can be proven, in the telling, the image, the audio recording or the footage.

The most important thing of all to protect your investigation from such ridicule is to learn about pareidolia; and to recognize how it works. 

It's not just in pictures.  It can be in the music or white noise, which tricks your ears into discerning certain words called.  It can be your interpretation of what you just saw in the corner of your vision.  It may also be in your senses of touch, taste and smell.  We can all be tricked by our own minds, finding patterns to aid our survival.

Because if you're not sure what you're seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling, then it's a very sensible thing to step away until you are certain.  Pareidolia helps spread the alarm to trigger that stepping away.  Don't hate it for its own sake.

But apply it!  Study your evidence with a ruthless abandon.  It may not be pareidolia, but if it could be, then it's not the proof that the world will accept.  You are searching for that elusive 1%, the evidence which cannot be explained away nor ignored.  Good luck.

Learning about Pareidolia the Fun Way!

Magic Eye books and other optical illusions will help you recognize how the mind plays tricks on us in the hunt for patterns.

More Wizzley Ghost-Hunting Articles

The paranormal can be scary, although most of the time it can be explained. As is often the case with ghostly photographs, they're digitally edited, but how can you tell?
It's all well and good visiting a haunted location, but for evidence you're going to need more than a story. Check out what you can take to capture proof of ghosts.
This Connecticut couple were the most famous ghost-hunters of the 20th century. Their career has been the subject of many books and films.
A poltergeist seemed intent upon burning down the MacDonald Farm in Caledonia Mills, Nova Scotia. The scientific community sought urgent explanations.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/27/2013

Nicely ninja-ed into the conversation there, Mira!

Look at the walls in the foreground, then at the ghost's trousers. They are the same colour precisely. Paul was messing with the image in GIMP, and he could match the hex codes.

Nor could he see any evidence of photoshopping, which is quite obvious at pixel level. I was trying to talk him into writing a sister article to this one, but about how photoshop can be used to fake ghost images. You're right, that does happen a lot.

I saw the extra mauve as being a panel leaning up against the wall, but actually in that room.

Mira on 01/26/2013

"Paredoilia" :)
I agree that's what happens most of the time with ghosts but what I don't understand looking at that picture where the ghosts has trousers the color of the wall... what I don't understand is what exactly is that color at that spot in the picture. If this was what we actually see, then I can imagine the brain putting some mauve there, but if this is a photo, that mauve has to be something. Doesn't it? The only explanation I have is that the image is actually photoshopped.

JoHarrington on 01/23/2013

It's now a word that you can edge into conversations! I'm glad that you enjoyed the article.

kate on 01/23/2013

i love this article, i never knew thats what the phenomena was called though

JoHarrington on 01/21/2013

Glad that you thought so. :)

georgettejohn on 01/20/2013

Very interesting Jo!

JoHarrington on 01/19/2013

Agreed. It does leave me with the impression that something terrible is occurring on the edge of the tub.

JohnTannahill on 01/19/2013

I think the sink seems friendly but troubled.

JoHarrington on 01/19/2013

It's a paranoid sink.

HollieT on 01/19/2013

I'm with 2uesday, the sink looks terribly morose.

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