Superstitious perceptions reveal properties of internal representations

Psychol Sci. 2003 Sep;14(5):505-9. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.03452.


Everyone has seen a human face in a cloud, a pebble, or blots on a wall. Evidence of superstitious perceptions has been documented since classical antiquity, but has received little scientific attention. In the study reported here, we used superstitious perceptions in a new principled method to reveal the properties of unobservable object representations in memory. We stimulated the visual system with unstructured white noise. Observers firmly believed that they perceived the letter S in Experiment 1 and a smile on a face in Experiment 2. Using reverse correlation and computational analyses, we rendered the memory representations underlying these superstitious perceptions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Emotions
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Field Dependence-Independence
  • Humans
  • Imagination*
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Superstitions*