I’ve long been aware of the phenomenon of pareidolia, the seeing of recognizable objects, usually faces, in random visual stimuli. Famous examples of pareidolia include the “face” on the Cydonia Mensae region of Mars or images of the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast. Our brains are really good at pattern recognition, so good in fact that we often detect “meaningful” patterns in random data. We commonly see faces because our brains are “hardwired” to be particularly good at identifying faces.
But until today, I had always associated pareidolia with visual perception. But that’s not the case. We’re also really good at picking out “speech” from random noise. Like the visual version, this skill is a two-edged sword; it allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation from across the room at a crowded cocktail party, but it also gives us “Satanic” messages when rock music is played backwards or ghostly voices created by the wind in a spooky house. Like it is for facial recognition, our brain is hardwired for speech recognition and linguistic capability and it’s so good at it that we often hear speech when there really is any there.
Brian Dunning at Skeptoid.com has an excellent podcast on the topic from a few weeks ago (a transcript is available on the site if you don’t want to listen).
A really good example of audio paredolia is this sample that Dunning references. Listen to it the first time and it sounds like a bunch of high-pitched tones. But listen to it several times and your brain will pick out more and more “words” each time until it sounds like a perfectly normal English sentence. (I’m posting the sentence below as a comment so you won’t be influenced by knowing what it is in advance. If you hear a different sentence or are a non-native English speaker and hear a sentence in a different language, please post a comment about what you hear below.)
Dunning has other examples you can hear in his podcast and transcript.
This YouTube video is a humorous take on the phenomenon, where someone has added English subtitles to the Hindi (or whatever language it is) in this clip from a Bollywood musical.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton