The Man in the Moon is Called Pareidolia

Courtesy of the September/October Scientific American Mind, today’s word of the day is “pareidolia” (pair-ee-DOH-lee-uh, as near as I can tell). It serves as a reminder that there is always something new in my field for me to learn, because even though I knew the phenomenon it describes very well, I had no idea it had such a fancy name.

Pareidolia is the source of the man in the moon, the Virgin Mary in the toast, cloud spotting, and the Rorschach test. Our minds are so good at looking for patterns and so finely tuned to recognize and identify shapes, that we see them everywhere. This is particularly true of faces – after all, as an incredibly social species we are exquisitely sensitive to faces, with a region of the brain (the fusiform face area) thatĀ seems dedicated to the challenge.

Even more fascinating than our tendency to see faces everywhere, is that we seem to have passed that trait on to our computers. Having recently defended computer vision as a more difficult challenge than computer language, I was more than a little shocked, and may find myself doing some serious rethinking of artificial intelligence in the near future.

But far more important than that, I need to figure out a strategy for working “pareidolia” into my next Scrabble game.



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