September Meeting Review

On Wednesday 5th September, the West Cumbrian Skeptics met again in 1761, Cockermouth. A collection of 17 people (some new to the group) and one small dog (Tess) debated such topics as the continued struggle of homeopaths, vaccinations, Shuzi bands (and their debunking), bomb detection by dowsing and psychics.

Here follows a brief summary:

Pareidolia (Wikipedia)…a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.

There is no real surprise that humans see such patterns and messages in these phenomena – after all it is hard-wired into our brains. From prehistoric times it has been a matter of survival – to distinguish between friend, prey or predator.

In modern times it accounts for many delusions and confusions , from Mother Teresa on a bun, Elvis on a crisp, John Travolta in a photo of a bonfire, to UFO sightings, ‘ghost voice’ recordings (or EVPs) and ‘hidden’ messages in rock songs.

The astronomer, Carl Sagan (Cosmos, The Demon Haunted World, Contact), claimed that this evolutionary trait directly affected the survival of infants. If the child failed to recognise their parents and smiled back less, they were less likely to prosper. This is probably a good thing for the continuation of the species, though other such pattern matching has less obvious uses today. Perhaps we try to identify with our current interests, desires, hopes and obsessions, which would explain some of the celebrity and religious links that people claim. This is particularly true in the latter case – a very quick search on Google Images can find examples of Mother Teresa, the Pope, Jesus, Ganesh and other similar icons. These can not only be hailed as ‘miraculous’ but even sold on eBay ($28,000 for a cinnamon bun with the famous Albanian nun’s image!).

However, does nobody ever ask why would a 2000 year old religiously significant character appear in such mundane places as confectionary, toast, door panels and stains on walls? Surely, one needs to apply a little bit of critical thinking and consider that these are no more than random chance and variation.


Check this out: Carl Orf’s O Fortuna (

The same argument can be used with sound recordings, be they supposed ‘subliminal’ messages in rock music (both Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were taken to court over this matter) or Electronic Voice Phenomena – EVPs – as used by ghost hunters. When a sound recording is played backwards, or the quiet bits amplified greatly, it is often possible to think you hear strange voices saying odd things. These are just your brain trying to pattern-match data to form (wrong) information.

If you have the time and inclination, try using a sound editing program such as Audacity (free from and reversing the chorus of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. They do seem to be saying “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” You can do this with many songs (Stairway to Heaven and Imagine to name just two).

There is also a school of thought that conspiracy theorists are an evolutionary result of our quests to pattern match. If you always construe random noises or movements in the long grass as something that is going to attack, you (and you descendants) will have increased survival chances. Those that ignore this feeling may not. Thus, if you are reading this article, then your ancestors were more likely of the pessimistic variety!

Pareidolia is a fascinating subject, with lots of interesting and bizarre examples of all sorts. To this end, I would strongly recommend the work of Richard Wiseman ( as he is a big fan of this. But be warned, any risqué or rude pictures may just be in your mind.


 Twitter @BenSagan                            Facebook/Cumbrian Skeptics           


NEXT MEETING: Wednesday 3rd October at 8 pm

Frizington Veterans Club, 19 Mil Lindow Street, CA26 3PU

“Global Climate Change”

Examining the Evidence and Discussing the Implications


About bensagan

Co-founder of the West Cumbrian Skeptics

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