Auditory Pareidolia Does Not Exist

The phenomenon of Pareidolia consists of perceiving patterns or objects where there are none. Usually regarded as a visual experience, examples of similar auditory phenomena abound. Yet, a clear definition of auditory pareidolia remains elusive. Once an exact definition is obtained, auditory pareidolia could serve as a useful tool for investigating the brain.

Pareidolia – What is it?

You might not recognize the term, but you’ve probably experienced Pareidolia or have seen examples in pictures: The eerie face on mars, religious figures on toast… etc. Pareidolia is defined as perceiving meaningful patterns or objects in non-patterned or amorphous stimuli (Schott, 2013 also see this post). The phenomenon is an example of something called Apophenia; the tendency to perceive patterns where none exist, often associated with delusions and schizophrenia. Despite this relation, an experience of pareidolia does not imply pathology. In fact, some regard the earliest evidence for abstract symbolic thought in hominids to be a pebble that to an individual australopithecine, appeared as a striking impression of a face and was subsequently brought home, around 3,000,000 BP. Another early example includes the grouping of stars, commonly known as constellations.

Seeing a real face informs us of the presence of another animal (human or nonhuman) around us – another animal that can potentially harm or help us in important ways. In fact, it has been shown that we are ‘tuned’ to notice such stimuli. Pareidolia is not, however, limited to the appearance of faces. Take, for example, the Rorschach inkblot test used in psychoanalysis to uncover subconscious thought patterns. It is simply the experience of perceiving something meaningful or structured within something that is not structured and it comes from the natural human tendency to find meaningful patterns in our surroundings. It’s an act of making our environment intelligible – an adaptation obviously very useful for survival.

Auditory Pareidolia

Pareidolia is often described as existing in auditory form and there are many interesting examples. One type includes the wondrous ‘phantom voices’ created by psychoacoustic researcher, Diana Deutsch. These fascinating stimuli consist of two spoken words or a single word broken up into two syllables. One word or syllable is played in one stereo channel while the other word is put through the other channel and the process is alternated across channels at a high rate. Initially the components are not recognizable as words but rather sound as though they’ve emerged from some sort of linguistic ‘uncanny valley.’ As this process repeats, entirely different, new words appear. Even more interesting is that the words heard are often related to the current psychological state of the perceiver – “hungry,””happy,””lonely” – in a manner similar to the internal states thought to be uncovered by the visual Rhorshach test.

Phantom Words 1

Phantom Words 2

Phantom Words 3

Another common example derives from the realm of popular paranormal circles and is known as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). Popularized by parapsychologist Konstantīns Raudive in the 70s, EVP consists of spooky voice-like recordings found in mostly radio static but also in other electronically based recordings. They occur when random noise gives the impression of a voice and are thought by believers to emanate from the spirit world. A canonical set of examples includes a collection of relatively early recordings, compiled as Ghost Orchid.

Defining the Phenomena

Scientific exploration, where possible, transits phenomena to matters that are well understood and defined. As both a dictionary and a credible, peer-reviewed publication clearly defining auditory pareidolia evades an extensive search, auditory pareidolia remains in the land of phenomenology. One can look to a number of other sources, with varying amounts of credibility. For amusement, here’s a list of potential definitions (with sources) and the difficulties, I see, associated with each one:

  1. Tweeter who shall remain anonymous:

“Auditory pareidolia is a situation created when the brain incorrectly interprets random patterns as being familiar patterns.”

Well, it has to be auditory. And, what is defined as a familiar pattern anyway? Does misperceiving a non-voice as a voice qualify as interpreting a pattern? Also, there is no such thing as a “random pattern”.

  1. An online paranormal magazine creator:

“It’s when your mind is desperately trying to grasp words out of sounds you’re hearing. Listen to a song in another language and your mind will interpret some words in your own language.”

So the phenomenon is restricted to perceiving words? Moreover any actual conscious perception is not necessary?

  1. Dictionary of Hallucinations 

“…a cognitive illusion consisting of intelligible and meaningful words discerned in a pattern of unintelligible words, random sounds, or white noise.”

This definition also implies that the phenomenon is restricted to hearing words.

  1. New England Skeptical Society 

“Audio pareidolia is hearing words in sound that are not actually there. This can occur by misinterpreting words that are being said, or by hearing words in random noise. The phenomenon is the same as with visual pareidolia, in that the brain is searching for a recognized pattern, finds the closest match, and then processes the incoming sensory information to enhance the apparent match. Here is an example (sent in by Peter Davis) – a Youtube video of what looks like a church group singing a song. Below are subtitles suggesting what they are saying – and this is sufficient suggestion to force a match between what you are hearing and the words in the subtitles.”

This one defines visual pareidolia in a broad sense and indicates it is basically an auditory mode of the visual phenomenon, but says that it is restricted to hearing words. The example used strongly constrains the effect by the use of subtitles. Does the fact that our specific perceptions can be influenced by being primed change the definition of the phenomenon? Priming is also common in outlandish presentations of EVP, as recorders strive to increase both the spectacle and believability in their recordings.

  1. Hearing Loss Help

“Audio pareidolia is hearing words/music that are not actually in the sounds you are hearing. This can occur by misinterpreting words that are being said, or by hearing words in random noise. In audio pareidolia, your brain searches for a recognized pattern, finds the closest match, and then processes the incoming sensory information to enhance the apparent match.”

Not sure exactly what’s meant in the last part of this definition, but let’s just leave that alone. According to this definition, hearing music in random noise also qualifies, but nothing else.

  1. Polysyllabic (blog):

“Pareidolia refers to the human tendency to attribute meaning to random stimuli. Usually, when people talk about pareidolia they mean visual phenomena like Virgin Marys appearing on pieces of toast and the like. But pareidolia can be auditory as well.”

This attempt falls flat before anything to do with auditory pareidolia begins.

  1. Wikipedia

“Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.”

The vastness and popularity of Wikipedia underscores the importance of it having an accurate definiton. But here, why would the pattern have to be a familiar one? Can’t a pattern just be a pattern? Moreover, this definition would exclude common examples, such as the phantom word stimuli created by Diana Deutsch. These stimuli do have a pattern to them, it’s just that a different pattern emerges perceptually.”

  1. Nees & Phillips, 2015

“…In a pilot experiment to test the ability of listeners to detect the presence of anomalous signals in audified noise files, the researchers observed an unexpected number of illusory tonal signals in control files of white noise. Further studies replicated the effect and showed that unprimed, naïve listeners reported illusory mechanical noises, natural noises, tones, and human voices in white noise files.”

Ok, here we have a peer-reviewed publication that directly  explores the phenomenon. Great, but they never actually provide a definition of auditory pareidolia!

A Possible Definition?

Auditory Pareidolia: a phenomenon that occurs when a naïve, unprimed listener perceives sounds that are not present in any part, and bear no similarity in meaning, to the actual stimulus.

This definition, although likely prone to its own difficulties, would include the illusory perception of any sound in either random or patterned stimuli, not just words. It would exclude instances where perceivers are primed with, for example, subtitles.

More importantly, once the phenomenon has an agreed-upon definition, it could possibly be of use. Perhaps it could serve in basic science research to investigate neural correlates of perception. It could also have potential as a clinical tool. In a study published in PLOS One this past May, Mamiya et al. reveal their newest efforts to devise a test for visual pareidolia. They define it as a surrogate for visual hallucination and imply their tests as clinically helpful. Auditory hallucinations are often more common than visual hallucinations in Schizophrenia, a disorder that is as widespread as it is serious. Thus a similar effort may be worthwhile.




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