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27 May, 2009 / Ash

Seeing patterns

Our brains are good at finding patterns. In fact, they can sometimes be too good, and find patterns that just aren’t there. In cognitive science, this is known as apophenia.  It can be as simple as creating a pattern from a random distribution, or as complex as recognising faces from random markings.

People are convinced of streaks in gambling

People are convinced of 'streaks' in gambling

The industry of gambling preys on a type of apophenia known as the ‘clustering illusion’: the tendency to see clusters, or ‘streaks’ in small samples. We all know that if you flip a coin 100 times, it will end up roughly 50 times on heads, and 50 times on tails. Unfortunately, we can’t see the big picture, so the first 10 flips of the coin might not be 5 heads and 5 tails; it might be 10 heads! What does that mean for the next flip? Is it more likely to be heads or tails? Contrary to what we may believe, the next flip is still a 50/50 chance.

Another form of apophenia that is often the basis of religious fervour is pareidolia: finding images or sounds in random stimuli. This is where people see faces in mars, UFOs in the sky, and religious icons in anything from water stains to toast burn patterns.

Seeing religious icons in the burn patterns of toast

Seeing religious icons in the burn patterns of toast

Pareidolia is often primed. From birth we have a bias to recognising faces, even from fuzzy images. People more easily discern images of faces they are familiar with. Listening to random sounds like variable static or records being played backwards, we can recognise random words here and there, but prime someone with the words they ‘should’ hear and they can become quite clear.

Do you have any other examples of seeing patterns in random stimuli?

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