From the Skeptic Dictionary Newsletter – Volume 7 No. 10 – October 21, 2008:

Priming, pareidolia, apophenia, and The German New Medicine
I’m often asked “what’s the difference between priming, pareidolia, and apophenia?” (Actually, nobody’s ever asked me this, but it seemed like a nice hook.)

A good example of priming comes from backmasking. What at first sounds like gibberish becomes a clear message after somebody tells you what to listen for. You’ve been primed to hear the message. Another example of priming comes from allegedly outraged parents and a talking doll: “Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Cuddle and Coo” doll from Fisher-Price. Some folks swear the doll mumbles “Satan is king” and “Islam is the light.” Some might even hear “Palin is a terrorist who is perpetrating voter fraud.”

An example of apophenia came to us from the Bible wingnuts who interpreted the Dow Jones dropping 777.68 points in a single day on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) as a message from YHWH. The nutters round this number down to 777 instead of up to 778, as any normal person or journalist would. They (the nutters) think 777 is “God’s number” and the message was “repent” or something equally profound.

Finally, pareidolia, like hearing clear messages in gibberish, can occur with priming, but it isn’t necessary. In pareidolia, some vague or ambiguous stimulus, like a stain on a wall or reflection from a light, is seen as a clear image, such as the Virgin Mary or Elvis. If the vague stimulus is then imbued with significance or meaning, as when it is seen as a sign from another dimension, pareidolia slips into apophenia. Some investigators might divide pareidolia into types: visual and auditory. One might even speak of tactile pareidolia, as when a man misinterprets a woman’s accidental touch to mean she wants to know him in a Biblical way. This might also be called wishful thinking.

When one nutter leads another to interpret a vague stimulus as a clear image sent from another dimension to convey an important message, all three phenomena occur in what might be called the unholy wingnut trinity.

The above message has been brought to you for no particular reason and should not be taken too seriously except by those who have no sense of humor. On the other hand, it might be noted that the aberrations we mention here are clearly related to the very important human trait of detecting patterns. The examples we’ve given are small-scale wrong turns on the path of life. There are numerous examples of grand-scale wrong turns described in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. There are many more wrong turns that neither I nor any other skeptic will ever have the time to completely catalogue, but one that deserves to be mentioned is The German New Medicine.

Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer went from suspecting a causal link between his wife’s death and his own cancer with the shooting and eventual death of their son, Dirk, to a full-blown practice of medical quackery that claims all diseases are due to conflict and shock. From there he went on to invent a treatment for cancer and other diseases called conflictolysis. It is reported by critics that over 140 cancer patients have died despite this treatment and nobody has been cured. Also, you won’t find anything in the scientific literature in the way of controlled studies or other scientific methods of testing and evaluating Hamer’s claims. Scientific tests evolved in the evidence-based world and are a way of avoiding self-deception and of determining whether apparent patterns are illusory.

Read the full newsletter here.