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Daniel Tarr

Simulacra, Pareidolia and Apophenia

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Three terms come up in a critical discussion of seeing faces of supernatural beings in various objects and places. These are simulacrum, pareidolia, and apophenia.

Simulacrum (plural, simulacra) simply means a likeness or semblance. Thus, an effigy of a politician being hoisted by demonstrators is a simulacrum of the person.

While simulacrum refers to the likeness itself, pareidolia refers to the human tendency/ability/capacity to perceive simulacra. Here are some definitions:

  • "Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (usually an image) being mistakenly perceived as recognizable" (Explore Dictionary of Psychology)
  • "Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct" (Skeptic's Dictionary)
  • "Misperception of an ambiguous stimulus as something specific" (The Folklorist)
  • "The erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random" (Word Spy)

The phenomenon of apophenia is a very close cousin of pareidolia. According to psychologist James Alcock, apophenia is

"a common perceptual phenomenon whereby we spontaneously perceive connections and find meaningfulness in unrelated things. In other words, it involves seeing or hearing patterns where in reality, none exist.... A common example of apophenia occurs when people are in the shower, and mistakenly think that they hear their door bell or telephone ringing. The white noise produced by the shower contains a broad spectrum of sounds, including those that make up ringing bells. The ear picks out certain sounds from the spectrum, and we "detect" a pattern corresponding roughly to a bell" (Electronic Voice Phenomena).

Alcock says apophenia is "virtually synonymous" with pareidolia, the latter being

"an illusion involving misperception of an external stimulus; an obscure stimulus is viewed as something clear and distinct....This perception, or misperception, does not involve conscious effort or any particular mental set, and the illusion does not vanish even when one pays closer attention to the stimulus because it is so ambiguous that it has no objective meaning at all" (ibid.).

[Summary by Edwardson Tan in The Incredible Likeness of Beings: Religious Simulacra and Pareidolia (2005.)]

Jesus Figure in the Eagle Nebula M16    
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Volcano smoke demon
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Last updated: 11-11-2011