The Word Pareidolia comes from the Greek ‘Para’ – beside, with or alongside, and ‘eidos’ meaning image, form or shape. Pareidolia is the term used to describe the psychological phenomena involving a vague and random stimulus, typically a sound or image, being perceived as significant. Pareidolia is a type of Apophenia – a term coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined Apophenia as ‘Unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness’.
Simulacra, (from the Latin Simulacrum which means ‘Likeness, similarity”) is the term used to describe ‘A representation of another thing, such as a statue or painting, esp. of a god’ and therefore refers to an object or likeness that has been deliberately created to resemble something else. Pareidolia include EVP or electronic voice phenomena. In 1971, Klaus Raudive wrote ‘Breakthrough’, detailing the discovery of EVP, which is described as auditory Pareidolia, as indeed is ‘backmasking’ in popular music.
Typical examples of visual Pareidolia include ‘seeing’ the shapes of animals in clouds and faces in orbs and other random objects. Carl Sagan hypothesised that humans have the ability to identify the human face from birth, and there is evidence to suggest an innate tendency to pay attention to faces from infancy and by two months of age the child’s face perception skills have developed to such a degree that specific areas of the brain, namely the fusiform gyri and lesser temporal gyri are activated by viewing faces. The face is an important site for the identification of others and conveys significant social information, such as moods etc. which suggests our ability to recognise faces from such a young age is part of our fight or flight system. This ‘Hard-Wired’ ability allows us to use basic details to recognise faces from a distance and in poor visibility, but can also lead us to misinterpret random images or patterns of light and shade as faces. A common theme of Pareidolia is the perception of iconic religious imagery in ordinary objects, most commonly the image of Jesus, The Virgin Mary and the word ‘Allah’, although the simplicity of letter forms in the Arabic alphabet, and the flexibility in Islamic calligraphy (and the particular shape of the word Allah’) make it easy to read into many formations of parallel lines and lobes on a common base.
Examples of Religious Imagery in common objects are:
In September, 2007, the so-called “monkey tree phenomenon” caused a minor social mania in Singapore. A callus on a tree there resembles a monkey, and believers have flocked to the tree to pay homage to the Monkey God.
In late 1996, the glass facade of a finance building in Florida attracted widespread media attention. The image was composed of flowing lines that suggested the veiled head and shoulders of a faceless woman.
The image was believed by the faithful to depict the Virgin Mary. It was iridescent and had “rainbow colors”. The image drew an estimated one million visitors over the next several years. The building was purchased by Shepherds of Christ Ministries, an Ohio-based Catholic revivalism group. The building was dubbed the Virgin Mary Building. On March 1, 2004, the three uppermost panes of the window were broken by a vandal. The windows were replaced with a picture of Jesus Christ. A local chemist, Charles Roberts, had examined the original windows and explained that the iridescent stain had been produced by water deposits combined with weathering, yielding a chemical reaction like that often seen on old bottles.
Roberts said that it was likely that the water sprinkler was the cause of it. The Building also had a large number of different bible scenes from the nativity on the windows wrapping around the side of it. These images, however, were artificially created. The face of Mother Teresa was seen in a cinnamon bun at Bongo Java in Nashville, Tennessee It was first discovered on 15 October 1996 by employee Ryan Finney and was turned into an enterprise by the company, selling T-shirts and mugs. Mother Teresa contacted the company and asked them to stop these sales. Discussions between the cafe owner and Mother Teresa’s attorney brought about a compromise. The cafe agreed to only sell a limited amount NunBun merchandise and sell it only at their store and not license the images. The bun remained as an attraction at Bongo Java. On 25 December 2005 the bun was stolen during a break-in at the coffee house.
The owner of Bongo Java had offered a $5,000 reward for the return of the NunBun. Photographs of the pastry had been sent to the Nashville, TN newspaper The Tennessean from a person identifying themselves as “Hu Dunet.” It shows the NunBun near a statue of a woman, a picture showing it being held by two men, their faces obscured by alterations to the photograph, and a picture of a man lying on a beach holding the bun in his left hand
On November 23, 2004, a grilled cheese sandwich that contained the likeness of the Virgin Mary was sold for $28,000 in an eBay auction by Diana Duyser from Hollywood, Florida. Duyser explained, “I made this sandwich 10 years ago. When I took a bite out of it, I saw a face looking up at me – it was Virgin Mary staring back at me. I was in total shock.” She kept the toast surrounded by cotton wool, in a plastic container on a stand. Duyser claimed that although a decade old, the toast has not shown any sign of mold or crumbling, which she considered as “a miracle”. She also believed its mystical properties have brought her blessings, including a $70,000 win in a nearby casino. The sandwich was purchased by the online casino, GoldenPalace.com, which is known for its publicity stunts. The company said that they planned to undertake a world tour with the sandwich and then sell it, with proceeds going to charity. The pan that was used to make the sandwich was also sold on eBay.
Some psychologists rely on pareidolia in psychological examinations. Occasionally, psychologists will use the Rorschach inkblot test to interpret a person’s supposed hidden emotions. The test includes an image that is created by dropping ink on paper, and folding the paper in half. The psychologist then asks their patient to interpret the resulting image. In theory, the patient projects their innermost thoughts onto the otherwise random image. However, this method of therapy is widely disputed by psychologists, as it has no grounding in facts.
And then we come to Pareidolia in Archaeology and the natural world. From clouds to rock formations, stones, aerial images and even Astroarchaeology, Images appear everywhere and every day. And due to our hard-wiring, we interprete these fantastic things to resemble something we recognise. Below is a gallery of images from those areas mentioned.
By Kirst D’Raven