Faces everywhere.

Let’s take for granted for a moment that Jesus of Nazareth, aka, Jesus Christ, did exist. What then would be the odds that he was blond-haired and blue-eyed, as depicted in the picture in my last post (under the toast)?

Virtually none?

I’d go into it in more depth, but Brandon at the aptly named MyNameIsBrandon has already covered the topic more than adequately. I’d rather write about pareidolia.

Pareidolia refers to seeing an image, usually vague, in essentially random information. Multiple explanations have been offered to explain the phenomenon, but it seems to be rooted in the pattern-recognition faculties hard-wired into the human brain. Brains do not analyze every bit of information available from the environment; that would be extremely slow and usually wasteful of energy. Instead, the brain “samples” the information in the environment and attempts to fit it to a pre-existing pattern. That works well enough most of the time, though it leaves us susceptible to illusions.

Pareidolia is just such an illusion. It often takes the form of seeing a face, given the importance of faces in human development. Carl Sagan hypothesized that babies predisposed to recognize the faces of their parents would be more likely to survive. Faces also play a central role in learning, as students picks up visual cues from the expressions of their teachers.

Thus, we are very likely to see faces, and it takes very little information to produce a “face pattern” – a couple of dots for eyes and a line for the mouth, inside a roughly oval or circular outline. So we see a “man in the moon”. (Actually, I never saw it until a high-contract illustration pointed out what I was supposed to be seeing.) East Asians, by the way, see a rabbit. UFO enthusiasts and New Age types see a “face on Mars”, though they had to get all conspiratorial after later photographs showed the formation to be just a mesa.

Catholics see Jesus and Mary everywhere they turn. Protestants also see Jesus, but not so much Mary. Mary has appeared on the side of a building, on a fence, in a window, on a tree stump, in a grilled cheese sandwich, on the wall of a freeway underpass, on a piece of firewood, in an accumulation of chocolate drippings, in a piece of paneling, on a pizza tray, in a watermelon, and on a pebble.

Jesus joined his mother by appearing on a pretzel, and went on to appear by himself on a floorboard, on a wall, in the clouds, on a tortilla, on a Pizza Hut billboard, in a tree, on a brick, in a nebula, on a dental X-ray, in a frying pan, in a window, on a rock, on another rock, in some paint, in a shower, on a truck, in a fish bone, on a piece of pierogi, on a piece of sheet metal, in a hot chocolate spill, in a shrimp tail dinner, in a Chihuahua’s ear, in a couch, and in a bag of Doritos. Also, in a special appearance as his infant self, he appeared on a snail shell.

What do these pareidolic Jesuses have in common? They look like the one in that abysmal painting. Mary always looks like the one in another painting. If Jesus is hanging on a cross, it looks like still another painting. In the same way, when Christians (mostly Catholics) used to experience stigmata, they bled from the palms of their hands, just like it showed in all the paintings. After it was determined that the bones and ligaments in the hands are incapable of supporting the weight of the human body, and that Jesus would have had to be nailed to the cross through his wrists, the stigmata shifted to their newly assigned location.

Rather than seeing images of Jesus (or bleeding like Jesus) in a historically probable fashion, what these Christians see (or bleed) matches the cues in their environment. This strongly implies that these incidents are not “genuine” religious experiences; if they were, they would be independent of traditional Eurocentric stimuli. In the case of Mars-face enthusiasts, the pareidolia is often simply a case of wish-fulfillment, though severe cases may imply delusional tendencies.

The case would be complete – that pareidolia results from facial recognition faculties – if it weren’t for another species of pareidolia which throws a kink in it.

Muslims don’t see faces. The Quran forbids depictions of Mohammed, and God – i.e., Allah – is incorporeal. The Quran, however, does not prohibit writing their names, and Muslims go out of their way to write those names on everything, from mosques, to flags, to weapons and armor. So it should come as no surprise that, when Muslims experience pareidolia, they do not see images of their holy figures, but their names written in Arabic.

It doesn’t hurt that Arabic writing is cursive – that is, it consists of squiggly lines (which is not an insult; cursive Latin writing also consists of squiggly lines). Arabic is also highly mutable, and Arabic calligraphy has developed into an art form of its own. There are also far fewer squiggles in Arabic, supplemented by a lot of dots. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, then, to see the name Allah (which is quite simple: three characters) or Mohammed (four characters).

So we have examples of Mohammed on the side of a sheep, and Allah inside a piece of beef, in some beans, in a tomato, on a fish, and on an egg. Oh, and on the other side that same sheep.

And, of course, there’s the monkey tree, a multi-faith pareidolic opportunity.

As for me, I see faces everywhere (except on the moon, oddly enough). Don’t tell that to my shrink, though. Pareidolia may be commonplace, but it it’s not Jesus, you might find yourself in a straitjacket.

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1 comment:

Mark said...

I participated in a study last year in which the researchers were investigating whether or not people who tended to hold mystical/magical beliefs were more likely than other people to see faces in blurred, noisy images where there was really no face.

No prizes for guessing what the results were ;)