Anomalous visual experience is linked to perceptual uncertainty and visual imagery vividness

Johannes H Salge, Stefan Pollmann, Reshanne R Reeder

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20 Citations (Scopus)
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An imbalance between top-down and bottom-up processing on perception (specifically, over-reliance on top-down processing) can lead to anomalous perception, such as illusions. One factor that may be involved in anomalous perception is visual mental imagery, which is the experience of "seeing" with the mind's eye. There are vast individual differences in self-reported imagery vividness, and more vivid imagery is linked to a more sensory-like experience. We, therefore, hypothesized that susceptibility to anomalous perception is linked to individual imagery vividness. To investigate this, we adopted a paradigm that is known to elicit the perception of faces in pure visual noise (pareidolia). In four experiments, we explored how imagery vividness contributes to this experience under different response instructions and environments. We found strong evidence that people with more vivid imagery were more likely to see faces in the noise, although removing suggestive instructions weakened this relationship. Analyses from the first two experiments led us to explore confidence as another factor in pareidolia proneness. We, therefore, modulated environment noise and added a confidence rating in a novel design. We found strong evidence that pareidolia proneness is correlated with uncertainty about real percepts. Decreasing perceptual ambiguity abolished the relationship between pareidolia proneness and both imagery vividness and confidence. The results cannot be explained by incidental face-like patterns in the noise, individual variations in response bias, perceptual sensitivity, subjective perceptual thresholds, viewing distance, testing environments, motivation, gender, or prosopagnosia. This indicates a critical role of mental imagery vividness and perceptual uncertainty in anomalous perceptual experience.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Research
Early online date31 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2020


  • Anomalous visual experience
  • perceptual uncertainty


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