Seeing things

I’m currently compiling a glossary of the technical terms for the 101 psychological phenomena described in ‘Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables’. Perhaps the least prosaic of all the names is ‘pareidolia’, which might at first sound like some exotic mental disorder. Though longish and possibly unfamiliar, it’s a very simple word once deconstructed. The –ia suffix just connotes a mental process or condition, as in ‘amnesia’; and the remainder breaks into two parts. The ‘-eidol-‘ bit means ‘shape’ or ‘form’, from the Greek ‘eidolon’; and ‘par(a)-‘, also Greek, means ‘alternative’ or ‘pseudo-‘ or ‘quasi’, as it does in ‘paranormal’ or ‘paramedic’. All of which makes it a rather neat name for what it describes.

The relevant Fable here is the fourth in the collection, ‘A Mouse’s Mistake’. At night, a timid mouse who always shuns humans is startled by the sudden sight of one, and falls fatally into a cleft. She was mistaken: it was just a chance conjunction of the moon, a tree stump and a flying bat that fooled her. Her mind was bamboozled by the brain’s propensity to seek out meaningful shapes, even where none exist, and acting upon them in a hair-trigger manner. You can see why, more often than not, this reflex will prove a life-saver: it’s the ‘act first, ask questions later’ principle. But take reflection out of the equation, and there are always risks.

You can see pareidolia in action by drawing a circle and simply adding a short horizontal line inside it towards the bottom: your face-recognition apparatus will fire up straight away. Draw two dots parallel to the short line on the upper side of the centre and recognition will go into overdrive. Add a small circle in the middle and there’s no doubt about it: you’re looking not at a bunch of graphics, but a face. Brain-scanning confirms just how super-fast this mental apparatus is. And the recognition also comes with emotional information attached. If you doubt that, just peruse the store of emojis on your phone and see how many nuances of emotion they convey, even though they are about as human as a piece of rock.

Talking of which, one of the best-known examples of pareidolia is a rocky one: the so-called ‘Face On Mars’, which you can easily find online using that as a search term. It does resemble a face unless you happen to come across it from any other direction than ‘right way up’ – or of course if the sun is not casting the right shadows – in which case it looks like just another Martian hill. There are plenty of earthlier examples online, showing ‘faces’ in anything from toast to clouds. You’ll find them either extraordinary or laughable, depending on your perspective. I say this because many of the most publicised examples, including the notorious Turin Shroud, have a religious character. One can only speculate why. Perhaps supernatural belief necessarily demands supernatural evidence; or maybe the brains of believers are less likely to process such stimuli cognitively (which, after all, is what faith is all about).

Pareidolia was in my thoughts this week when I observed a person studying pictures. Twice within a few minutes, the individual commented that an image looked like a particular human, though I could see no resemblance at all. The individual has a paranoid disposition, and struggles to listen on account of a preoccupation with identifying threats in whatever has just been said. Presumably a similarly elevated sensitivity to potential threats is responsible for hyperactivity in the facial-recognition apparatus. The issue is however more complex than perceptual alone, intimately involving emotional response (and executive control thereof) that may also be abnormal. At what point such particularities cease to be considered ‘normal’, and might be classified as a disorder, is an interesting academic point.

One of the songs on Science in Music’s ‘Change of Mind’ album (, called ‘It’, concerns a mental-health condition called Capgras Syndrome in which the face-recognition apparatus goes seriously awry. The brain can still recognise familiar faces, but they no longer elicit the normal emotional response. It is as though the wires have been cut. Consequently, the sufferer comes to believe that somebody close is, say, an alien or a robot, and may even be driven to murder the ‘imposter’. Both pareidolia and Capgras syndrome – one curious, the other potentially dangerous – are thought-provoking examples of the complexity (and frailty) of the human mind. They raise philosophical questions about how sane we are entitled to consider ‘normal’ brain activity to be.

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