What do baby cries and the Virgin Mary Cheese Sandwich have in common?
My son is almost five months old and he’s not yet sleeping throughout the night. He still wakes us up a few times every night with his crying, which is one of his forms of communication at this age, because he’s hungry or he wants soothing. My husband and I are on high alert to hear his cries and last night I awoke a number of times believing that I was hearing him crying, but he wasn’t…
The first time it was actually a dog barking next door, the second time it was the sound of traffic outside, and the third time it was white noise coming from the kitchen…
This is known as pareidolia. (Lots of people have tried to coin new names for this phenomenon, but pareidolia is the most accepted term.)
Pareidolia occurs when our brains try to identify familiar sounds and sights in random stimuli. This is when we see or hear a pattern that isn’t really there. For example, when you think you can hear your cell phone ringing when you’re in the shower but it isn’t.
This is the premise behind the Rorschach inkblot test.
We might pretend to see faces in the clouds but pareidolia can be very misleading, when we truly believe that we can see a face on the moon or the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich.
There are many famous examples of visual pareidolia and many of them tend to be religious in theme, such as the cinnamon bun that looks like Mother Theresa, the shrouded Virgin Mary on a tree stump, Jesus on a tortilla, and a Cheeto that looks like Jesus, who is fondly known as Cheesus.
There are many famous examples of audio pareidolia too and most of them are based in paranormal or pseudosceintific thinking. For example:
When people believe they hear (usually Satanic) hidden messages in music played backwards, such as hearing “Paul is Dead” in The Beatles’ song Strawberry Fields Forever. This is called backmasking and while a few musicians have toyed with the method, most claims of hidden messages are caused by pareidolia.
David Oates’ Reverse Speech. This is the theory that our backwards speech contains hidden messages that reveal our true thoughts. Oates believes that children speak backwards before they speak forwards. He claims that children as young as four-months-old produce single words in reverse, such as “Daddy”, “hungry” and “help”. At that age, vocalizations don’t constitute language, especially when played in reverse.
When parents think their baby can talk before the age of one. The babbling stage begins at approximately 5-8 months of age, when the baby’s vocalizations begin to sound like phonemes, but these do not yet represent meaning. At the end of the first year, babbles begin to sound like words. Even then, they may not have any specific meaning attached to them. So, your three-month-old isn’t saying “hello” or “I love you”.
Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs) where ghost hunters believe they collect messages from the dead using a recorder, or a device designed to capture voices of the dead, such as a Frank’s Box.
I write about these phenomena in Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic.
So, I wasn’t hearing my baby cry, at those times anyway…
It can be fun to spot a “face” in nature or “words” among gibberish, as long as we don’t assign supernatural significance to what we see and hear. Pareidolia has no meaning other than the meaning we give to it.