I had thought that ‘pareidolia’ referred exclusively to the human tendency to see human faces everywhere – any time you see two dots or circles and a line below them, boom :) it’s a face. It can be triggered by rocks, clouds, shadows, uneven browning on a tortilla or a pancake.
It turns out, though, that pareidolia covers any kind of overactive pattern matching. Humans look for meaningful patterns all the time, without thinking about the search, and when something trips the right thresholds in our brain, we seize upon it. The result can be faces, voices, music or just a cloud that looks like a moose.
Here’s my thesis: the large language models (LLMs) and similar generative software processes that people currently refer to as “AI” – those are exceptionally well-tuned to produce patterns that will trigger threshold recognition in human brains. Not by accident – that’s the goal. They are pareidolia-circuit stimulators.
The problem is that LLM output is exactly as meaningful as any other kind of pareidolia. Every well-formed paragraph is a false-positive error.
And when people repeatedly mistake their overactive pattern recognition for reality, we call that a mental disorder: psychosis.