By Phil Plait | December 12, 2008 2:00 pm

Pareidolia, as regular readers know, is the psychological effect of seeing a pattern in random or semi-random distributions. It generally takes the form of seeing a face, but you only tend to hear about it when someone sees a religious icon. Jesus in a cabinet’s wood grain, Mary in an oil slick, Mohammed in a tree, Buddha in a wasp nest.

Virgin Mary in a brain MRIThe latest comes from Florida. A woman, Pamela Latrimore, who is evidently quite ill and having trouble making her bill payments, sees Mary in her brain MRI. She’s religious, and takes this as a sign to sell the image on eBay. OK, fine. She’s ill, and if she takes comfort in this then that’s understandable, even if I disagree with her interpretation.

Let me be clear here: I understand that people read their own viewpoints and prejudices into pareidolia. Ms. Latrimore is religious and sees the Virgin Mary; I love science fiction and I see Chewbacca (on "Mary’s" belly). Latrimore is steeped in a religious viewpoint, and so she sees this through that filter, and again, while I disagree with her it’s understandable.

However, I am not so forgiving of the media. The online article linked above from NBC5 in West Palm Beach, like every other news venue when they report on this topic, gives this story straight, with no mention at all that this may just be coincidence (which it most certainly is), and present only dismissive lip service to people who disagree with the conclusion that this is a holy image. Worse, they have a video link which says "Click on the video player to the right to watch the story, and decide for yourself." That strikes me as being the antithesis of news reporting; how can a viewer decide anything when the reporting is so one-sided?

The more I watch local news "human interest" stories, the more I think they work against the interest of humans. It is not terribly hard to present this story fairly without being cruel — Latrimore reportedly is, after all, quite ill and deserves sympathy — but I keep finding that journalists, especially on TV, are becoming so lazy that there is no research at all going on. It’s just reporting, stenography, and it’s not even complete. Ghosts, pareidolia, psychics… how many times have you seen more than five seconds devoted to the skeptical (that is, reality-based) side of these topics?

Ah well. That’s the way of things these days, and it just means we have to work harder, get our message out even more, and stay on top of such things.

Note: After drafting this post, I found out my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella has written about this event as well.

Tip o’ the amygdala to BABlogee Mark Barnes for the link.


Comments (60)

Links to this Post

  1. Americas Review News Aggregator » Presleidolia | August 13, 2011
  1. Charles Boyer

    I hate to say this, but that looks as much like a pudenda as anything else.

    And no, my mind is not in the gutter (most of the time.)

  2. grmcdorman

    I saw this earlier on the JREF forums.

    I work in a medical imaging company. MRI images are often 12 or 16 bits per pixel; that is, each point on the image can have 4,096 or 65,536 possible intensities (shades of gray). A standard monitor can only display 256 shades of gray*.

    To view the images, the radiologist will adjust it (essentially brightness and contrast, although that’s not what it’s called) to display a portion of this range.

    This means the image she’s seeing is not the full scanned image; furthermore, the appearance of the image can be adjusted by changing the display parameters.

    The area in question is, as far as this non-medical person can tell, normal anatomy anyway (based on the many test images I’ve viewed in testing our software).

    * – Yes, displays are 24-bit. But that’s 8 each bits for red, green, and blue; to display gray, each of the three must be the same.

  3. GomeisaNeelie

    See now I see the Gordon’s Fisherman.

  4. grmcdorman

    Oh, and one more thing: I don’t know where the colour in the article’s image comes from; MRI images are not colour. (They’re not even strictly gray, either, but that’s the convention from X-rays.)

  5. Tom Woolf

    Wow – that DOES look like Chewbacca. I lean towards The Emperor vs. Mary with the hood, though.

  6. grmcdorman
  7. I think this looks more like bigfoot than Chewbacca. She should contact Tom Biscardi and see if he’s interested in buying it.


  8. JillSwift

    Everywhere I look, I see a Rorschach test.

  9. mike

    Hmm, I don’t see Chewbacca, but I do see Darth Vader.

    What does that say about me?

  10. Ken_g6

    “Mary’s” belly, plus side structures, reminded me most of this creature from Hellboy 2.

    Once I found the “real” head, it looked much more like…

    ET phone home!

  11. Old Geezer

    I have another issue that nobody seems to address. Let’s say, just for sport, that Jesus or Mary or whomever needs to be depicted on a pizza. Why is the depiction always the Renaissance image of these people who (if they lived) didn’t look anything like this? Why is Mary, for instance, always in flowing robes, rather than the course cruddy clothes of the era? If it’s a case of “updating the image” wouldn’t you think she’d be in sweatpants or something?

  12. Well, Chewbacca -IS- in a zipper-front jacket… But he comes from the future and all… Close enuf.

  13. Greg in Austin

    “Your focus determines your reality.”

    That’s totally the Emperor, not Mary. And the Chewbacca could also be a Predator.


  14. Duane

    I see a photo from an 8th grade Biology textbook, opened to the chapter on “human reproduction.”

  15. Clayton

    Yawn. I’m tired of this joke.

  16. Davidlpf

    Every once and while on these threads I want to say “I see dead people”.

  17. I see things that are not safe for work.

  18. Is this blog post meant to distract peoples attention from what’s going on in the skies right now? Does Bad Astronomy propaganda want to hide the truth about Moon?

    Yes, I said that!

    The Moon is apparently relatively close to Earth today and also a full moon… Resulting in it appearing to be larger (by 14%) and brighter (by 30%) compared to other full moons in 2008.

    Click my nick for more details.

  19. # mike Says:
    Hmm, I don’t see Chewbacca, but I do see Darth Vader.
    What does that say about me?

    It means you are succumbing to The Dark Side.



  20. andyo

    Have you considered that maybe you don’t see the “skeptical side” because the news outlets serious enough to be skeptical don’t report on these ridiculous subjects?

  21. Na

    Having worked as an online journalist, I would add that the video isn’t so much about bias, but about saving money: it is inherently cheaper to get the public to do your work for you (by submitting videos, pictures, blogs, etc.) to present as news, than to actually go out and research the topic yourself. It saves a lot of leg work. I don’t agree with its overuse in the current mainstream media, especially as a replacement of, or reliance on, indepth news. However, from experience, I wouldn’t say that it is a clear case of knowingly going out of the way not to do research or proper investigation for articles. Most cases it’s just a way of trying to encourage interaction with readers and further get them to buy products or read more news. (Also, newspapers can’t offer interactive media like the internet can. Although even TV news programs now openly ask people to submit videos. In Australia, we even have a TV show that presents the best clips from Youtube – as if that was anything other than lazy programming)

    Back to the issue: I looked at the image and saw nothing but a brain scan. I guess you have to want it, for it to look like Mary.

  22. me

    I see a skull-sort-of-thing in there, slightly demonic-looking. Reminds me of Doom 3, the PC first person shooter…

  23. JoeSmithCA

    Ohhhhh another ink blot test! I guess it wouldn’t be news worthy if she said it looked like a walnut, an insect head or…and MRI scan! :)

  24. Caleb

    Looked like the close up of a brain scan to me. And no, I’m not a neurologist. Though neurology does interest me.

  25. Matthew Miller

    Personally, I see a dolphin in that the mouth of the dolphin ends with the head of Mary and it’s eyes are to the left and right at the edge of the middle section of the brain. Ya it’s hard to explain and idk if anyone else can see it lol!
    Anyways this is my first time posting here and I have to say that I love your blog Phil and I’m glad that I stumbled across your path on YouTube!
    Keep all the great work coming!

  26. Matt

    The image of Mary is SO easy to see in anything. Two bell-curve-like humps, the first with greater magnitude than the second. There you have it, Mary.

  27. Jeff

    I see Lassie where Phil says Chewie is; as for Mary, it looks more like a Sword-wielding knight.

  28. George E Martin

    Phil said: Note: After drafting this post, I found out my friend and fellow skeptic Steve Novella has written about this event as well.

    And also did P.Z. Myers over at pharyngula where there was a lively discussion. P.Z. also noted the same resemblance as Charles Boyer in the first comment here.


  29. kuhnigget

    Why is Mary standing on top of a large vagina?

  30. gopher65

    Where you see Chewie I see the TacoBell dog.


    Movie like this proves that entertainment can take your mind of the spirit of GOD! One of the worst sins you could ever commit and GAYNESS is one of them! I know I haven’t seen it yet, and my family would forbid me to see it, but my family is right for forbidding me. I here know so many people are watching it, because it hasn’t made but something under $10 million. I believe other weak minded and thoughtless people would like this movie. I admit the story and the acting may be powerful. The thing is watching men have sex with men. I would laugh at the whole thing, because it’s against the HOLY BIBLE!!!! And I heard MILK gets killed and if you die in your sins, you will be damned for eternity. I know haw powerful the film is, but I think it’s only for people who want to be GAY. Talking about Rated R, NC-17 is more like it. NO!! I figured out a perfect rating. ADULT!!! Brokeback Mountain almost won an OSCAR, and I hope this doesn’t win! And I hope nobody wins best actor or supporting actor. I hope nobody wins in the film! I REBUKE Sean Penn! I REBUKE “MILK” in the name of Jesus!!!!

  32. Davidlpf

    Come on Truechristian you love Sean Penn and you man crush is on HArvey MIlk.

  33. badchristian

    To truechristian:
    Whaaaaat? You been doin majic shrooms and dreamin’ of that jesus feller?

  34. Negatron

    oh, gee, TRUECHRISTIAN is stirring things up. meh.

    that image looks like Aragorn in his hood holding a sword point down in front of him.

    btw, Sean Penn won best actor from both the new york film critics and the los angeles film critics. Yes!

  35. Davidlpf

    I almost think Truechristian is a bot to promote the film.

  36. IVAN3MAN


    Phil Plait, on the “Little Atoms interview” thread, I , and another commenter, had posted a direct link to the live mp3 stream of the London (UK) based local radio station (that had interviewed you) for the benefit of those B.A. Bloggies who live outside the London area. What happened next? The link(s) got held up “awaiting moderation” well past the scheduled broadcast time! :roll:

    Whereas the diatribe above by “TRUECRISTIAN”, which is the same rubbish verbatimthat he posted on another thread, gets through your so-called anti-spam filter! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!

    I know that you are very busy, Phil, and that you can’t be at your computer all the time to moderate submissions with links, but I’m sure that I speak for the rest of B.A. Bloggies when I say that those comments by trolls that often clutter up these threads are getting somewhat tiresome as well as bloody irritating.

    A solution to this problem of trolls would be to require people to register/log-in first before submitting a comment. That way, regular and trusted commenters can submit a comment with a link(s) without the need for moderation, provided that they don’t abuse their privilege.


  37. Phil wrote: “How can a viewer decide anything when the reporting is so one-sided?”

    Well, you did. I did. I’m sure lots of people did. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people reacted to this story in a way which supported their own beliefs. People aren’t sponges.

  38. Thomas Siefert

    Virgin Mary must have been wearing her Chewbacca T-shirt that day….

    Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum Said: “Well, Chewbacca -IS- in a zipper-front jacket… But he comes from the future and all… Close enuf.”

    Eeh… NO, He’s from “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”.

  39. quasidog

    Nice post Phil. I have made mention in the past when people are ridiculed for ‘seeing’ things but I have to say I find the way you presented story this far less offensive and very tactful. In fact I wasn’t offended at all. Nice one :)

    The ‘media’, and I use the term to highlight the money making, fear driven, side of it (not the real news and fact reporting that is well researched) … is … um … now I am getting angry. I hate the media. In Australia, on most TV stations, they are useless. They just sensationalise, do crappy research … etc etc … all the typical stuff. It drives me insane, to the point now that I don’t even watch television anymore, and skip more pages in the local rag than I do read. So much hype. So much fear. All to make a buck. There are a few rare, and I mean RARE exceptions. This media laziness is highlighted to me whenever I hear an astronomy related story. No matter who it is, they will almost always get the story completely wrong, exaggerate facts, and highlight all the cliches people want to hear. It can be embarrassing to listen to. But then one day I watched America’s FOX news and laughed so hard I decided, if I do have to watch lazy, fear mongering, ignorant, opininated (I remember when news presented were not meant to give opinions) news, I will get something positive out of it, and have a good laugh at it. I don’t like to ridicule individuals with certain beliefs, even if I think they are completely over the top and especially when they are not well. It’s just not cricket. I am so glad you didn’t do that in your post. Many would. However the ‘media’ is a ‘machine’ run by greedy fear mongers … so I guess it is ok to ridicule it. :)

    Laughing at machines is better than being angry at them, after all. It is better for my constitution. :)

  40. quasidog

    … this story …. typo. I am not Yoda.

  41. Don

    As Matthew C. Nisbett (website below) emphasizes, this is all about framing a story for the readership. The pe0ple who read this sort of newspaper have no background in logic or science and lots of background in going to church. If the newspaper wrote about pareidolia, it would lose readers and would go bust. If Bad Astronomy wrote about finding God in the stars, it might attract readers from Florida, but it would lose the readers that it now has. My candidate for the image is The Dude from the Big L.

  42. harpe éolienne

    “In life, things that are noble and magnificent are never far from things that are trivial and laughable.” Napoleon Bonaparte

    this is what happens when pattern recognition misfires to a ridiculous degree i guess…

    btw, am i the only one who sees the werewolf prince reaching out his arms? 😉

  43. Chewbakka? It looks more like Fizzgig from “The Dark Crystal” to me. That must mean Jim Henson is God. Or at least his special effects guy.

  44. So, my question is: is her brain abnormal because of her disease, or does something like this show up in *everybody’s* MRI scan? And if the former, why does Mary manifest in disease? If the latter, why is this special?

  45. kuhnigget

    @ Tim Bennett:

    People aren’t sponges.

    Perhaps, but I definitely wouldn’t categorize a whole lot of them above your basic mollusc.

    @ Ridger:

    does something like this show up in *everybody’s* MRI scan?

    If you google image “mri brain” you get a veritable rorschach test of scans. I swear, one of ’em looked to me for all the world like Elizabeth Berkley doing a pole dance from “Showgirls.” And I usually don’t have that sort of thing on my mind. Must…bleach…eyeballs…

  46. That isn’t Mary! That’s the Grim Reaper!

  47. Scott Smith

    The Spectre? She musta been really naughty in life to have the Wrath of God show up in her MRI. 😉

  48. firemancarl

    Just below the dark black line, it looks like Davy Jones from Pirates of the Carribean! In fact, the dark black line makes a really cool outline of the pirates tri-corner hat!

  49. Fizzle

    It looks like a Zygon to me.

  50. And it’s from Florida…. I despair!

  51. IBY

    Huh, I saw Darth Sidius.

  52. His Steveness

    It looks like Big Bird in a sweatshirt with Napoleon’s hat.

  53. ennui

    obviously Cthulhu, may you be eaten first.

  54. Mike

    I can see the Chewbacca, but my first reaction was some character from the Thundercats. It’s something about the white streak in the “hair”…

  55. I see a vagina. I’m sorry, but I think it had to be said (for some reason).

  56. Hal's Dave

    Anyone remember the creature from “This Island Earth”?

  57. Chris A.

    @Charles Boyer:

    “And no, my mind is not in the gutter (most of the time.)”

    Yes, but how seriously can we take that assertion from the guy who continued to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” well into old age? :)

  58. Charles Boyer

    ^ LOL. But you are mistaking my namesake with Maurice Chevalier, the singer of that little ditty.

    @Some Canadian Skeptic: I posted the same thing at the top, but used the Latin word instead. It’s certainly reminiscent of the female sex, albeit in H.R. Giger colorings.

  59. Laura

    The first thing I saw was the figure from Tool’s Sober video. But it sure was fun seeing all the other images everyone else picked out.

    Right here is maybe the funniest pareidolia I have ever seen..


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