Ghosts, Magic, and Pareidolia

If you were to ask 100 people if they believe in ghosts, how many do you think would say yes? It might depend on the age range or geographic location, but overall it likely wouldn’t be a majority.
When faced with such a direct proposition, you might find only a low percentage is willing to admit it. But just because people will laugh at ghosts and monsters under the bed doesn’t mean that they don’t possess different (but ultimately extremely similar) types of magical thinking and supernatural beliefs—all of which can generally be explained or labeled as magic.

For instance, do you want your favorite sports team to win? You might just feel better if you wear the same pair of socks you wore the last time they won. Magical thinking such as superstitions creeps into our lives in small, almost imperceptible ways that make it second nature for us to believe in. From there, they only grow in ways that can end up skewing reality.

Essentially, the supernatural has become a catch-all umbrella term for things that lack a conventional explanation. There may not always be a clear explanation, but attributing what is not immediately explainable turns out to be a tendency of the human brain to jump to conclusions and make sense out of a situation—even if the explanation must be fabricated. We fabricate explanations because of an overwhelming desire to feel in control; if we can explain something, then we can ostensibly affect its outcome.
This is quite a comforting feeling, as opposed to feeling that you are helpless to the forces around you. When we feel we have control, we gain a sense of empowerment and agency around our lives. If we believe what we do makes a difference, then we will do more. For example, the superstitions surrounding sports teams. You may logically know that you aren’t making a real difference, but it still feels better and more comfortable if you engage in those acts. By avoiding discomfort little by little, this tendency grows stronger.
You’ve likely read about this tendency when learning about ancient and not-so-ancient civilizations. The Greeks assigned a deity to nearly everything as a scapegoat or savior, and Native Americans engaged in rain dances to help their crops flourish for the coming harvest. All modern religion tends to explain conventionally unexplainable.
We depend on supernatural beliefs because they give us a semblance of control and allow us to answer universal questions such as “How does this work?” and “Why did this happen?” Humans don’t like to feel that we are random molecules of carbon and hydrogen that happened to coalesce and form somehow—we might be, but it sure feels better if we have a purpose. Why Do We Wear Stinky Socks to Support Our Favorite Sports Team?
Superstitions are the first way we are chasing ghosts—that is, to create an explanation for the unexplained.
Specifically, superstitions are behaviors or thought patterns that people engage in because they believe there is a cause-and-effect relationship. You engage in superstitious acts because you believe it will get you closer to a specific outcome. For instance, if you notice that your favorite football team has won the last three times you’ve worn red underwear, a new superstition will be born: red underwear only on game days. You might not affect the game itself, but it appears that there is a pattern of causation, so you’re going to adhere to it—sometimes even subconsciously. (Of course, the vast majority of superstitions end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy at best, where you do indeed create the outcome you were seeking, but only because you held that belief, not because of the action itself.)
Classical conditioning is the cause of many superstitions we hold throughout our lives. We commit an act, we see an outcome, and we begin to link the two, even though it’s no more than a correlation or simple coincidence. It only needs to happen once or twice for you to begin to subconsciously latch onto this so-called relationship. Yet surprisingly to some sports fans, sitting in the same chair while watching matches likely does not affect the end outcome just because it happened twice three years ago. This is also why people don’t walk under ladders—because negative occurrences have coincided with that event—never mind the fact that walking under a ladder puts you directly into the path of falling debris and traps you from moving to safety.
Yet these beliefs are what humans cling to because it brings clarity to an otherwise random and chaotic world. This tendency even extends to pigeons, as the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner proved in 1948— during his study, he found pigeons learned to continue behaviors that coincided with food appearing, despite the food appearing at set intervals. In other words, pigeons saw patterns that produced an outcome they wanted and kept doing it, even though there was no causal relationship. Shana Wilson from Kent State University investigated why people engage in superstitious behavior. She concluded that people who engage in superstitious behaviors are more susceptible to what is called the uncertainty-of-outcome hypothesis, which is the idea that when people feel a lack of certainty, they seek to find a way in which they feel they can exert some degree of control over it. A lack of certainty is extremely uncomfortable and unsettling, and being able to point to something as a cause eases the underlying tension. Certainty is about survival and security and a lack of danger.
Daniel Wann in 2013 discovered that sports fans actually felt that they could influence outcomes of games and matches with their superstitious behaviors, which typically involved clothing, food and drink, and good luck charms. Sports fan or not, the more you feel that your life is determined by factors outside your control, this research would argue, the more likely you’ll become superstitious.
Beyond sports fandom, we can see examples of this in our own daily lives. We grow impatient and anxious if we have an acne outbreak, and we are comforted if we find any remedy, no matter how dubious. It makes us feel that we will have things under control, even if the remedy calls for ingredients that make you doubtful. Anything that represents a sliver of hope allows us to feel control versus hopelessness and helplessness.
Not having control over situations, at the extreme end of the spectrum, is a feeling that underlies types of anxiety and depression. What motivation could you possibly have if you were certain everything would turn out terribly, despite your best efforts? Therefore, many times, the more important an uncontrollable situation is, the more likely people are to try to exert a measure of control through superstitious behavior. Some use it as a coping mechanism.
Superstitions are generally harmless, until the point that they are relied upon and replace actual work and effort. Problems arise when people can’t distinguish between an outcome they can control and an outcome that is beyond their control. In other words, what is wasted motion to service a superstition, and what behaviors are actually impactful? Is the main purpose to reduce anxiety (superstition) or to create progress?
Stuart Vyse, author, and professor at Connecticut College chalks superstitious behaviors up to the comforts of illusory control, saying, “There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition. The absence of control over an important outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know on a rational level that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit. Furthermore, once you know that a superstition applies, people don’t want to tempt fate by not employing it.”
Superstitions can generally be split into two categories: positive and negative. A positive superstition sounds like “If I do X, then Y will occur” where Y is a positive outcome. Positive superstitions can improve confidence and reduce anxiety because they are the panacea to all that ails you. They are your lucky charm and best foot forward. If you are shy about a job interview and you always wear lucky socks during job interviews, you are going in with a head full of confidence because you feel you are complete and fully armored for battle.
This provides a psychological advantage and helps us complete the self-fulfilling prophecy where if we think that we are (because of superstitious behavior, anyway), then we are. They can end up assisting us in life if harnessed and limited properly. Negative superstitions are best characterized as “If X, then no Z” where Z is a negative outcome. This is helpful as well, but it can be a bit more disempowering.
Superstitions are easy to acquire, and they are likely more widespread than you realize. Whenever you are engaging in actions to reduce your anxiety or uncertainty, you might want to ask yourself if you are just servicing a superstitious belief. Doing something “just in case” often ends up doing that. Our brains fool us into a sense of illusory control because it feels more comfortable. However, that comfort sometimes distorts reality in very detrimental ways.

Why Do We Believe in Magic?
Ah, magic—not the type that magicians peddle on sidewalks, but rather the belief in the paranormal and the mystical.
This is something maybe even fewer of us would admit to believing in as adults, but children have been found to accept magic and the paranormal as readily as science. This naturally makes sense because children’s brains are sponges for information. They absorb everything and have no sense of perspective on how to separate truth, falsehoods, and the fantastical.
Children accept magic as part of their worldview because they don’t understand the world well enough to dispel it. At some point, most people lose their belief in Santa Claus for this very reason. The math doesn’t measure up for an obese man whipping a set of flying reindeer across the world, descending through every chimney in the world with gifts and enough time left over to kick his feet up and enjoy a snack of milk and cookies. Many things just don’t hold up to increased scrutiny as children grow up and experience more of the world and the boundaries of reality.
Yet we must realize that this doesn’t happen to everyone; our sense of magic and the paranormal aren’t completely dashed from our lives. There are those of us who still believe in Santa Claus and insist on his existence. Generally, Eugene Subbotsky of Lancaster University asserts that the belief in magic persists in the subconscious of many adults even while they consciously reject it.
This means that adults will never admit to it, but they’ll secretly hope to catch the obese man dressed in a red suit on their rooftop during Christmas Eve. They feel logically they shouldn’t believe in magic and logically they should seek alternate explanations for what they may have heard of or witnessed. They should know better, after all. However, at the slightest hint of unexplained ambiguity, they revert back to what is referred to as “magical thinking”—a self-explanatory term. Adults are more likely to rule out magic as an option right off the bat and will instead seek all other alternate explanations before resorting to a paranormal option.
Magical thinking arises in large part for the same reason superstitions take hold in people’s minds: being able to blame a boogeyman or credit a savior gives us a sense of control over the world and how we navigate it. If we can blame the rain on a mischievous deity, this is more comforting than a total lack of understanding of rain’s origins. It gives us comfort in uncertain times and allows us to remain mentally strong.
This mirrors what we see in everyday life. Adults, for the most part, are conditioned to swear off magical thinking because it can denote a lack of logic, evidence, and even intelligence. Indeed, it is seen as a crutch to simply explain anomalies away as magic, a ghost, or a monster with a hammer. But at a certain point when you find reality difficult to cope with or explain, the brain steps in and concocts something that ties everything together nice and neatly.
Giora Keinan of Tel Aviv University found that those who had the highest levels of magical thinking were also those with the highest levels of stress. It is clear then that magical thinking, whether superstitious or in the belief of salvation, is used as a defense mechanism to protect people’s psyches against reality. Indeed, in Israel, citizens were subject to constant missile attacks at the time of the study. The alternative is an enormous level of panic and stress that the brain simply can’t function with.
Magical thoughts can make a person feel that they will be okay. If someone’s ego is challenged, they will use defense mechanisms to create a scenario in which they are not at fault. Similarly, if someone’s sense of logic is challenged, they will use magical thinking to create a scenario in which their thinking is not wrong. Taken to the extreme, magical thinking is seen in delusional breakdowns.
Someone without magical thinking in an extremely dangerous situation will be too beholden to logic to feel okay. They’ll calculate the odds of survival or happiness and see that probability is not on their side. Someone with magical thinking can easily thrive in such a position because they possess one of the most important human traits: hope. Magical thinking bestows a feeling of hope and that things will turn out all right, and therefore it battles panic.
Jennifer Whitson at the University of Texas conducted additional research into the notion that magical thinking is a type of mental shield from the harsh truths of the world. If something negative has happened, it was for a reason, or there was a greater purpose behind it. That’s the type of magical thinking that can allow people to mourn more effectively or work through tragedy.
We’ve established that magical thinking serves to protect us in many ways, but why are there such different levels of acceptance of magical thinking? Some people frequently get their palms read and avoid black cats like the plague, while others intentionally choose to live on the 13th floor of buildings because they like the number. What accounts for this difference? Research from the University of Helsinki showed that people with greater degrees of magical thinking tended to interpret random moving shapes as being anthropomorphized or having some sort of intent or purpose. Some said the random shapes were playing tag, while people who had low degrees of magical thinking simply saw random shapes moving in tandem. Those with greater degrees of magical thinking also saw hidden faces in photos where no such faces were present.
It seems that people have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. One group views the world as a puzzle that isn’t yet assembled (magical thinkers) while others see it as individual elements (non- magical thinkers).
People with lower degrees of magical thinking seem to be more adept at seeing random data and patterns for what they are, whereas magical thinking is a lens people will look through to interpret their world. A believer in the paranormal will see fate and kismet, where a more skeptical person will see a simple coincidence. A believer in magic will attribute it to unseen forces, where the skeptic will talk about the small world effect. And so on. Rolling with the underlying theme, one group accepts uncertainty while the other does everything within its power to avoid it. A study from the University of Toulouse concluded that there were indeed certain “cognitive thinking styles” that predicted magical thinking and line up neatly with the other assertions made in this chapter. The researchers delineated two different cognitive thinking styles: intuitive and reflective. Intuitive thinkers go with their gut as quickly as possible, whereas reflective thinkers tend to absorb information and then process it more slowly. In a sense, reflective thinkers are suspicious of their first instincts. Guess which one was more predictive of magical thinking?
Let’s take the following scenario: you are walking next to a cemetery at midnight and there is a man in a red leather jacket staggering toward you. He appears to be covered in dirt and mold.
The intuitive thinker will immediately jump to conclusions and come up with the first explanation—clearly, a zombie is approaching. This same thought might cross the reflective thinker’s mind as well, but they will suppress it in favor of an explanation that takes into account many more factors. This usually results in decidedly unmagical thinking.
This isn’t to say a belief in magic and the paranormal is negative or unhelpful. It’s merely to suggest the genesis of a belief in Santa Claus and the sun being one of the wheels of Apollo’s golden chariot arose out of a need for self-defense, feelings of control, and a desire to be significant and purposeful. It wasn’t necessarily because people engaged in illogical thought patterns—they were just doing the best they could with the information they possessed.
Just like with superstitions, beliefs in magic and the paranormal can also be positive because they lend confidence to uncertain situations. If someone holds the belief that they fight well in battle during full moons and their next battle happens to fall on a full moon, they will be ready for action.
Superstitions and magic can be seen as flaws in human thinking, but they can also be seen as features in that they act to
protect the self. There is no doubt they can occasionally (or often) distort our views of the world, but on the whole, they appear to contribute to mental health and well-being. Why Do We See Faces in Toast?
With superstitions and magical thinking, you have the symptoms of a brain struggling to feel safe and secure. In doing so, the brain tries to fill in the gaps from the incomplete information it received from the world. We can see the brain’s tendency to overcompensate to the point of skewing reality, and perhaps the epitome of this tendency is pareidolia: seeing visual patterns in randomness where none exists.
Pareidolia, in simpler terms, is seeing an image of Jesus in a piece of toast or picking out formations in clouds as animals. You have probably experienced pareidolia many times, though you may have not realized what your brain was actually doing. The brain is so powerful it is capable of merging information you have stored with incoming signals to find even more patterns; when the brain starts recognizing patterns that are actually just random noise, this is pareidolia.
Pareidolia stems from the fact that as rational beings, we have a desire to make sense of the world. We want things to fit into identifiable categories and for different categories to have clear relationships with one another. In the case of pareidolia, our brains are simply getting confused by the signals it is receiving and identify patterns and correlations that do not exist in an attempt to find understanding.
This can lead us to believe that we have seen things that do not actually exist. For example, consider the life of a Wall Street investor. Investors are notorious for trying to find patterns within the random noise of the stock market. Some use complex algorithms and computer simulations to try to predict the market. Others study the complex information presented in financial reports, and then they try to determine which companies are poised for the biggest gains. Either way, having a good view of the market and stocks is the first step. Then investors must make a decision.
Without quality information and models, the investor would have no idea which stocks were set to increase. This uncertainty would make the investor’s job impossible, as investing would become an extremely risky gamble. The investor would likely just throw their hands in the air, fully defeated by their lack of information.
Our brains operate like stock investors, constantly analyzing our surroundings, building models, and trying to predict the outcomes. This allows us to accurately predict the outcomes of our actions, protect us from known dangers, find nutritious foods, and creates an opening for a wide variety of other behaviors. But just like the stock investor can create a bad model that sees false patterns, so too can our brains find false patterns among all the noise. The fact is, there are not always ghost patterns in what we experience. Some stock investors go bankrupt because they see things that aren’t there. Some things are indeed just random chaos.
Perception is an active process within your mind that is constantly trying to incorporate the outside world into familiar mental models. If you close your eyes and imagine a spoon, your ideal model of a spoon will be presented based on your experiences. When you see a spoon you have never seen before, your brain takes this information and incorporates it into your existing model of a spoon.
But what happens when you see an unknown object? Your brain is still going to try to classify the information, so it will compare it to everything it knows. If the object is elongated and metal and has a cupped end, your brain might decide that this is another spoon. In fact, your brain is so adept at this process that it will sometimes ignore or avoid certain aspects of the object to fit it within an existing category. This is like shoving a square peg into a round hole.
One of the most common times pareidolia happens is when our minds try to recognize a face within an inanimate object. This happens all the time. Even the yellow, simplified “smiley face” is a great example. This common symbol has no nose, eyebrows, skin, hair, or any other feature that would let us know it is human. Yet when two black dots are placed above a curved line on a yellow circle, we instantly see a smiling face. This is known as facial pareidolia, and like other forms of pareidolia, it likely has its roots in evolutionary history.
Pareidolia is a subset of a greater phenomenon known as apophenia, which is the general process of interpreting false patterns from data. This phenomenon can also happen with information we consume, the feelings we have, or even numbers and words that we hear. Recall that pareidolia only occurs when we have found false patterns within the images we see.
Further, pareidolia appears to be largely related to our ability to recognize faces and other objects within our natural environment. For obvious reasons, it has always been important that humans and their ancestors can find food, hide from predators, and recognize their family and friends. Imagine what would have happened to any caveman without these abilities. He would likely be eaten by the first wild animal that he failed to recognize as dangerous. Even if he managed to avoid the wildlife, he would still be lost in a world where he could not tell what tribe he belonged to or who his relatives were. In fact, the famous astronomer and physicist Carl Sagan hypothesized that pareidolia is an overextension of our ability to recognize faces. Sagan succinctly summarized his theory as “Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.”
This ability to recognize a face is a complex process within the brain that analyzes all of the structures and patterns within a human face. Just like your ideal image of a spoon, you have an idealized image of a face. Through trial and error, you learn which of these patterns are faces and which are not. When we interpret a yellow circle with two black dots and a curved line as a face, this is the simplest version of that pattern recognition.
In a sense, we all have a certain degree of facial pareidolia that was necessary for our ancestors to develop bonds and care for each other. As such, people with the ability to discern faces were more likely to survive and more likely to produce offspring. This increased the trait within the human population, and now, like most traits that allowed us to survive in harsh conditions, they are more hindrances than help.

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