Pareidolia

Thanks to Steven Novella and The Great Courses, I have recently learned a new word: pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a tendency (a very human tendency) to see a pattern in random noise. One example of this is seeing faces in random shapes like clouds.

In Dr. Steven Novella’s lecture series, “Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills,” Dr. Novella tells how a particular memory is a construction that is re-constructed every time we recall it. Our memories are not recorded and played back for us the same way every time we access them—like a movie or a song. Instead, we assemble our memories again and again each time we recall them, with the effect of changing them every time.

Reality is also a construction. We take in sensory input and mash it all together to form a picture, a view or opinion, of what reality is. We have a system of “reality checking” to verify that we have done an adequate job at this. Some people have better reality checking systems than others. Some people have very poor reality checking systems. Those people may have schizophrenia.

Reality testing is switched down when we dream. That’s why we don’t question the odd things we see in our dreams. I recently listened to a TED Talk by a woman with schizophrenia who said that her reality was like living with a dream going on.

Novella echos this when he says that psychosis is the lack or decreased ability to test reality.

People can contaminate each other’s memories. I was suspicious of this after my husband fell in the shower and the guys from the hotel asked him: “You felt dizzy didn’t you and then you fell?” (Rather than, did you slip and fall?) Liability speaking, that probably makes a difference. Medically speaking, it definitely makes a difference.

I also learned a new definition for emotional intelligence: “the relationship between our motivations and our decisions; the tendency to relieve cognitive dissonance with rationalization.”

Dr. Novella tells us that we are awash in misinformation.

Our brain, approximately 3 pounds of grey jelly, is a tool for thinking, but it’s also a “believing machine.” Novella tells us that our brains are deceptive. Humans possess logic, but we are not inherently logical creatures. And, our thoughts follow the path of least resistance.

The brain consists of 100 billion neurons “and a lot of other cells that support those neurons by modifying and modulating function.”

What (who) are these other cells? We must make friends with them.

It seems that humans are plagued with a brain that can be logical but that evolved to easily accept logical fallacies.

There is so much in this course of thinking about thinking that I can’t even scratch the surface here. This course goes a long way to explain scientific skepticism and how to arrive at conclusions that are likely to be true and to have a sense of how reliable our conclusions are.

When faced with built-in deceptive thinking (even in the healthy brain), the barrage of information we have thrown at us, outside forces that seek to influence us for a buck (or lots of bucks), Dr. Novella gives us some strategies for examining conclusions. He urges us to invest the in process of thinking critically rather than the conclusions we arrive at.

He tells us that we tend to remember emotional events, so want to remember something? Tie an emotion to it.

Narratives are important to us, and we tend to make up the details as needed to make our memory narrative work. This means our memories are terribly flawed.

Reality seems to be a construct that we all need to agree upon. We need to collectively agree on which patterns have significance and which ones are meaningless.

I think that pareidolia must help us with language. Once you speak a language fluently, you can understand a variety of accents without a problem. However, the language learner has trouble understanding a variety of accents because they actually hear and analyze each sound. Fluent speakers rely on this innate pattern finding ability to approximate (and predict) words or phrases to decide quickly what they “must” mean.

Stay with the course to learn about statistics, the scientific method, and how logic works. I found the section on non sequiturs very engaging.

How should we cope with the urge to impose meaning on the patterns that we see? How can we not become emotionally attached to our conclusions?

Novella tells us that humans have an innate desire for control. Feeling a lack of control increases our pattern recognition or pareidolia. Magical thinking gives us the illusion that we can exert some control over otherwise random events. Superstitions are a result of this desire for control.

Novella tells us that “reality is always more complicated than you think.”

If you’re interested in hearing more of what Dr. Novella has to say, you can follow his blog, Science-Based Medicine.

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