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Old 06-01-2001, 03:01 PM
Irishman Irishman is offline
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pareidolia - the process of interpreting images from vague stimuli

I am looking for the history and origination of this word. In particular, is it something created by psychologists, or was it invented by skeptics?

So far all references I can find online are after 1990, mostly repeating Skepdic. I did find one reference to
Reed, Graham, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: a cognitive approach (1988), Buffalo NY, Prometheus Books, 207 p. rev ed. ISBN 0-87975-435-4.

Note this was published by Prometheus Books, the publishing company founded by Paul Kurtz (noted humanist and skeptic).

Any help appreciated. Thanks.
Old 06-02-2001, 11:49 AM
Duck Duck Goose Duck Duck Goose is offline
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Old 06-02-2001, 12:28 PM
Ringo Ringo is offline
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I searched quite a few dictionaries and came up with nought, and web searches turned up several references that all seem to lead back to Skepdic. Another term, apophenia, seems to mean about the same thing:

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The terms was coined by K. Conrad in 1958 (Brugger).
Unfortunately the only online source is once again Skepdic.

Both of these words describe what I believe we called cognitive illusion way back when I was in college, that being the phenomenon wherein your mind attaches meaning to some perceptual stimulus that is incompletely perceived. Examples would be: a.) you catch a fleeting glimpse of a brown paper bag blowing in the wind and your mind logs it in as a dog running, b.) the man in the moon. I suppose cognitive illusion, apophenia or pareidolia could be used to describe what process one uses to attempt to derive meaning from some wholly unknown new perception.

An interesting subject. My working life is largely devoted to interpreting data that yields an incomplete picture of the circumstances we investigate. I know other people can get a different view than I from the same data, and the interpretation of additional new data can be hindered by what we thought we already knew.
Old 06-02-2001, 01:47 PM
astro astro is offline
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This site has some info about pareidolia images and some of neat images to use as wallpaper.

Here's a pareidolia festival.

It's apparently related to something called the "Barnum Effect" As in PT?

"Pareidolia are sometimes considered to be miracles. Devout individuals who are constantly thinking about divine "signs" on earth are primed to interpret ambiguous stimuli in religious terms; when they encounter water
marks on a basement floor, or see dust swirling in a sunbeam, they are more likely than others to construct a spiritually meaningful perception.

In 1978, a woman in New Mexico accidentally scorched a tortilla; she concluded that its burned underside was an image of Christ's head, rimmed with a crown of thorns. The scorch pattern can indeed be seen this way; to an uncommitted observer, however, it resembles a lot of other things, too. Nonetheless, she reverently preserved the tortilla under glass, and it became an object of pilgrimage for thousands of believers. The Barnum Effect is produced by a basic human drive: the need to make sense
of the world. In the primordial setting within which our species evolved, a faint sound or slight movement could signal the presence of a predator. Only those organisms that could quickly resolve ambiguity were able to survive.
This tendency became a human characteristic. Today, people often perceive meaningful forms where none exist (PAREIDOLIA); and, when led to believe that presented stimuli refer to us, we tend to perceive personal meaning.

- Alternative Realities, Leonard George, Ph.D."
Old 06-02-2001, 02:29 PM
yabob yabob is offline
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A lot of references also point to "How to Think About Wierd Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age" by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, first edition, 1995, which makes it about the same vintage as skepdic, which is copyrighted 1994. An online post of chapter 7 verifies that it does use the word. Schick is a philosophy professor.
Old 06-04-2001, 05:57 PM
Irishman Irishman is offline
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Thanks for the help so far. Still, I haven't really found the answer I need. The word is apparently pretty new - my earliest reference is 1988. Astro, is there more on that Leonard George citation, like when it was written?

What I need to know is who originated the term and why. Was it a psychologist trying to describe some process he observed, a philosopher pondering the meaning of the man in the moon, or was it Carl Sagan making it up because he needed a nifty sounding word so he could make it sound like there was a phenomenon at work with the face on Mars?

Anybody know the roots of the word? Latin or Greek?
Old 06-05-2001, 08:32 AM
Steve Wright Steve Wright is offline
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Greek - deriving from eidolon an image or apparition. (Ultimately from eidos, "form").

Heven't been able to find cites via web searches, other than from the Skeptics Dictionary - except there was one chap giving it as one of the phenomena experienced during LSD trips, so it might be a psychological, rather than purely skeptical term. Not much to go on, though.
Old 06-06-2001, 05:39 PM
Irishman Irishman is offline
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Thanks, Steve, for the derivation. Par means what? -eidol- would be "form", or "image". And then -ia is "the act of", i.e. nounifying it.

Steve Wright said:
... so it might be a psychological, rather than purely skeptical term. Not much to go on, though.
That is what I'm trying to find out. Thanks for trying, though.
Old 06-07-2001, 03:52 AM
Steve Wright Steve Wright is offline
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Par- I think is from para, which ISTR means "with", "beside" (my Greek is very, very rusty). It's the same "para" as in "paranormal", it's just the second "a" getting dropped where it runs into the "-eidolia".


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