What Is Pareidolia? This Scientific Phenomenon Might Be Why Faces Are Appearing In The "Dear David" Photos
If you’ve been following the saga of Adam Ellis’ allegedly haunted apartment, then you’re probably already familiar with one of the bigger details of the tale: The faces that keep appearing in the Dear David photos Ellis has been posting on Twitter. Interestingly, though, there might be a scientific explanation for this phenomenon: Pareidolia. What is pareidolia? Simply put, it’s the tendency humans have of identifying patterns where there actually aren’t any — like, say, seeing faces in everything from inanimate objects to smudges in photographs. (I mean, yes, if you believe in the paranormal, then a ghost or a demon or some other kind of supernatural occurrence is also still a possibility in the case of Dear David — but for the sake of argument, it’s worth considering other explanations as well.)
First, though, let me ‘splain. (No, there is too much. Let me sum up.) Since Aug. 7, illustrator and writer Adam Ellis has been tweeting about his experiences with what he says he thinks is a haunting. A seemingly malevolent entity known as “Dear David” has been making its presence known in his apartment; his cats have been behaving oddly, he’s been having weird dreams, he’s been receiving bizarre phone calls, and he’s been able to document a few strange things in audio recordings, video clips, and a lot of photographs.
The photos have been of particular interest to everyone following the story; indeed, loads of internet sleuths have gotten to work analyzing them. They’ve certainly dug up some… interesting details, too. For example, in the darkness above one of the Polaroids Ellis posted, it looks like there might be a face:
The same is true of a selfie Ellis took (look in one of the glass panes on the door behind him):
And in a Polaroid Ellis took of his open front door in which the hallway appeared to be a gaping void (already weird!), it appears that there might be a dark figure lurking in the shadows (even weirder!):
But are they really faces and figures? Or are they just our eyes playing tricks on us? What you believe will likely depend largely on how you feel about the existence of ghosts in general — and if you’re a skeptic, then you’ll probably come down more on the side of our eyes playing tricks on us.
That trick is pareidolia. From the Greek para, meaning “beside,” “alongside,” “instead of,” or “beyond,” and eidolon, meaning “image,” “form,” or “shape,” pareidolia may be defined as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern,” according to Merriam-Webster. It’s slightly different from apophenia (hi there, The Black Tapes Podcast fans); apophenia is “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)” — that is, apophenia finds patterns between two or more separate things, while pareidolia finds patterns within one single thing.
According to Futurism, pareidolia may once have been a survival mechanism — an “ancient ability that may have helped us survive in the far distant past, back when we needed to be able to pick out hidden dangers in the landscape.” Additionally, Carl Sagan theorized that humans are hardwired to recognize faces quickly and easily in the 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World. Wrote Sagan (via The Atlantic), “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”
However, as Live Science notes, Sagan also acknowledged that this survival instinct could backfire — that is, it also might prompt us to misinterpret random visual data as faces. This misinterpretation is what fuels the Rorschach test, which asks those who take it to describe what they see in random inkblots; it’s also likely responsible for the numerous times people have spotted religious figures in pieces of toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, tortillas, and the like. In fact, the Shroud of Turin itself may be an example of pareidolia.
Research has discovered that people with certain beliefs and personality traits are more likely to exhibit pareidolia than others. There’s a reason, for example, that so many of the “Look, I found A Famous Person in my toast!” stories involve people spotting Jesus: According to a 2012 study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, people with strongly-held religious beliefs or who believe in the supernatural tend to display strong pareidolia. Additionally, a 2015 study found that folks who score highly on the Big Five trait of neuroticism are also more likely to see faces in inanimate objects.
Although visual “noise” interpreted as faces is one of the most common forms of pareidolia, it can be observed in lots of other kinds of stimuli and information, too. For example, a 2008 study out of the University of Texas at Austin found not only that participants identified images in television static where there weren’t any, but also that participants saw patterns in simulated stock market data where, again, there actually weren’t any patterns at all. It’s also been suggested that electronic voice phenomena (EVP) — a paranormal research technique that attempts to make audio recordings that might be supernatural in origin — might be pareidolia in action, as well; in this instance, the noise is actual noise (that is, it’s sound), and when we hear voices in it, it’s our brains identifying patterns in the static that don’t really exist.
So: Are those really faces in the Dear David photos? Again, your mileage may vary; a lot of it has to do with whether or not you believe in ghosts in the first place. For what it’s worth, I think there are a couple of examples from the story that I think are reaching — personally, I don’t think there’s a face here (I think it’s just light and shadows):
I don’t think this is a demon (again, I think it’s just light, shadows, and/or a weird reflection or error in the photograph):
And the photo on the left here is the one Ellis took with his finger over the lens, so I really don’t think there’s a face there, either:
Also, this interpretation of the selfie that may or may not have Dear David in the window pane is hilarious:
Although I do think the one that looks like it’s showing shadowy figure in the doorway is pretty creepy.
But that's just me, so do with all that what you will. As of Aug. 31, Ellis was still alive, if a little freaked out, so if he is being menaced by an evil spirit, at least it hasn’t gotten to him yet. You can follow along as the story develops at Ellis’ Twitter page or via the Storify he made documenting his experiences.
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