Have you ever looked into an electrical socket and seen a human face? (And we mean the American kind of socket, not those faceless round European and Russian things.) It kind of looks like a little face, with its mouth and eyes opened wide in surprise. Or maybe you’ve heard voices whispering, or phones ringing, or footsteps in the house – while you’re alone in the shower. These tendencies to find sensible patterns in otherwise senseless systems are known collectively as pareidolia.
Pareidolia refers to the human habit of looking for the familiar in the unfamiliar. The electrical socket isn’t a face – we know that. Our brains tell us that’s impossible, it’s a piece of plastic and the holes are where the metal plugs go. But that doesn’t stop us from seeing something more human in the configuration. Likewise, listening the monotonous spraying of water while we shower can give us a tendency to hear other things behind the ‘white noise’ of our bathing ritual. We may know the front door is locked as we bathe at home alone; but sometimes we wonder if someone has broken in, taking advantage of our moment of helplessness, and is robbing us blind or planning to thrust the shower curtain aside, Psycho-like, to stab us repeatedly. Sure, it never happens, but – oh, was that the phone ringing? Hm? Guess not.
Pareidolia can take on amazing and even absurd forms, especially when some of us believe in supernatural things like ghosts, angels, blessed virgin Marys (bvM’s), and so forth.
Visually, it’s an easy concept to reckon: we look for faces and other familiar patterns in the things we see. Babies know to concentrate on Mom and Dad’s eyes, almost as soon as they’re able to focus their own; children lie on their backs in the summer and seek out cool shapes in the clouds. We amuse ourselves with computer-generated pictures where familiar objects are hidden in seemingly random patterns of color, or we scour books to find a guy in glasses named Waldo amid hundreds of similar characters. The effect is the same.
For the religiously inclined, such tendencies tend to produce the occasional miracle. Every now and then people will find the visage of Jesus or his mother Mary in this or that object – a tree, a rust stain, a reflection on a window. Food items tend to be popular places for the Savior to paste his family’s mugs these days: tortillas, grilled cheese sandwiches (one of which sold on eBay for several thousands of dollars), even potato chips. The faithful see these as manifestations of the divine presence of the Lord – as proof of His (or His mom’s) existence for the world to see. Why they don’t just show up in front of TV cameras, showing off their godly super-powers for all the world to see beyond any doubt, we don’t know.
Not just religious icons are appearing in unexpected places these days (and yes, we are counting Elvis as a religious figure). The great abundance of ghost photographs appearing on the Internet these days appears to consist mainly of light blobs on photo negatives, camera straps, wisps of steam or clouds of dust; these aren’t exactly good examples of pareidolia, but people are still making them out to be the spirits of the undead – and are sometimes pointing out human faces to be found within the light blobs (or ‘orbs’) which they reckon to be the souls of those deceased persons still floating around here on Earth. A few ghost photographs are also apparently oddly-shaped tree knots, curling flames, and vague shapes that show up on processed photographs. Some of them look kind of spooky, but they’re a far cry from the spirit beings wearing period clothing that we’ve been reading about for years. Why doesn’t somebody take a reallygood ghost photo for a change?
But (some believers proclaim), you can not only see ghosts, you can sometimes hearthem too. Well, to be more precise, you take some sound recordings at a supposedly haunted spot, and listen to the tapes later. If after combing through hours of white noise consisting of natural echos and maybe some wind, combined with the hiss of your recorder, then maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have caught an example of EVP. Electronic Voice Phenomena are anomalous sounds which show up in such recordings – a lot of random noise which is broken once or twice by a whispered ‘Help’ or some other short, vague phrase. Ghost hunters aver that these are the voices of the dead, reaching into our world and being recorded by modern electronic equipment. But you and I know that it’s a classic case of aural pareidolia… hearing things where none really exist.
So, maybe you’ve glanced quickly at that old painting of your late great, great grandfather and you can swear the eyes follow you when you’re walking by. Relax! It’s a human quirk. It just means your brain is trying to make sense of the world around you, a world filled with lots of cool things to see and hear and smell and taste and touch. Your camera is rolling, your microphones are open and you’re ready to receive input. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that these weird little items you occasionally see around you are evidence of some supernatural mumbo-jumbo. It just means you’re weird. And that’s okay.
But, what the fuck do we know? Hey, listen, for five bucks I’ll show you a water stain in my bathroom that looks just like Pee Wee Herman….