MJ STEEL COLLINS explores pareidolia, the phenomenon that may explain the boring reality of spooky shadows in the dark!
Ever woken up in the middle of the night and become alarmed to see a dark and shadowy figure lurking immobile at the bedroom door, no doubt sizing you up as a midnight munchie? You stare at it bug eyed, perhaps whimpering a little as you prepare to either shriek for help or pull the duvet up over your head, whilst trying to remember if you’ve ever heard anything about your home being haunted. Then a car drives by, its lights shining through your bedroom window, offering further illumination on the bogey looming over the room, making you reconsider being absolutely terrified and muster the courage to switch on the lamp. And you feel like a bit of a muppet: the scary figure that was about to eat you is in fact your dressing gown hanging on the hook of your bedroom door, an innocuous object that had taken on a more sinister aspect in the gloom of the darkened bedroom. You’ve just had a moment of pareidolia.
This intriguingly named phenemonon is defined on The Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com/pareidol.html) as ‘a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct’. It is the brain trying to make sense of a vague, random stimuli in an attempt to make sense of something that is nonsense and can occur on both a visual and auditory basis. The word pareidolia is derived from the Ancient Greek words para, defining something wrong or abnormal; and sidelong, which means image or shape. The popular press appears to focus on pareidolia as being the effect of seeing a face in random patterns, which is very common, but it can cover a whole range of things, both in everyday mundaness, and in the paranormal. Both are rather fascinating.
Rorschach, fluffy bunnies and Paul McCartney
The Roscharch ink blot is a rather well known psychological test. This uses pareidolia to gauge a patient’s mental state from the images they see in the splotches of ink. Another famous incidence of pareidolia is seeing a face in the surface of the moon, or finding fluffy bunnies, bears and unicorns when looking at the clouds floating by in the sky. A famous example of auditory pareidolia occurs at the end of The Beatles’ 1967 hit Strawberry Fields Forever, where John Lennon is thought to chant “Paul is dead”, helping to fuel the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney perished in a car crash early in 1967 and his demise covered up by bringing in a replacement named William Campbell, who had been surgically altered to look like McCartney. Pareidolia features a lot in the later Beatles music, as some fans who had perhaps dropped a wee bit too much acid would listen closely to the records and play them backwards looking for hidden messages. Lennon despised this, going to great lengths to mock it in Glass Onion, a White Album track, which ironically, the same fans believed they could hear “Turn me on, dead man” in the garble of playing the song backwards, and taken as another Lennon reference to McCartney’s death!
Pareidolia: It’s Not The Messiah, It’s Just A Cheese Toastie
Of course, the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy just goes to show the strange paths that pareidolia can lead people on. Perhaps the most notorious is the many cheese toastiest, potatoes, trees, tortillas and other sundry items in which people believe they see the faces of Jesus, The Blessed Virgin Mary and even Mother Teresa. Faces are the most common form of visual Pareidolia, and can lead to a curious trade in supposedly Holy Foodstuffs. The list in which Jesus’ face has been found is quite impressive, including crisps, a fish stick, fruit, pancakes, bread, pizza, ice cream, Marmite, and of course a cheese toastie (see here for examples). The Blessed Virgin Mary was reported in a cheese toastie, which later sold for the mind boggling sum of $28,000 in 2004.
Religious pareidolia also occurs in less digestible materials. The Cone Nebula in outer space is also known as The Jesus Nebula to some who saw the Messiahs face in photos sent back by the Hubble Telescope in 2004, whilst in County Limerick, Ireland, the Virgin Mary has been reported in a tree stump and a house. She puts a regular appearance in a number of trees, it appears. The Catholic Church itself is somewhat sceptical of the majority of these, however.
A Ghost Or Just Smoke And White Noise?
In terms of the paranormal, pareidolia does raise itself as a credible explanation to supposed ghost sightings and Electronic Voice Phenomena. In recent years, sections of the press have carried reports of photographs that “definitively prove ghosts exist”. Whilst the present scribe has had too many curious experiences to deny the existence of ghosts, whatever they might be, it’s safe to say that some of these photographs fall more within the realm of the mundane rather than the uncanny. A look at The Mirror’s Ghosts section (http://counterterrorism/all-about/ghosts) provides a plethora of photos, which on close inspection are patterns of light, creases in a cushion, and as in a recent report on a photograph purporting to be the famous Black Monk of Pontefract, shadows reflected in a mirror.
Photos that are most commonly offered up as evidence for ghosts can be explained away as smoke or breath vapour caught on camera outside late at night, dust motes and light flare, the patterns appearing in the “white noise” of visual randomness. Perhaps even white noise itself produces auditory pareidolia that is taken as Electronic Voice Phenomena. Much in the same way stoned and tripping Beatles fans heard John Lennon chant “Paul is dead” at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever, the hiss and crackle of white noise makes us think we hear the voices of ghosts and the dead. Listen to the crackle of an unturned TV or radio long enough, and it does seem to talk to you. Even the noise of a house at night, such as my own flat, when you can hear neighbours shuffling at night, and the hum of distant TVs can make you think you are hearing disembodied voices and shambling footsteps in places where you know no living beings are. For myself, I’ve often thought I’ve heard my three year old daughter mumbling to herself or singing when I could swear she was asleep, but it’s just the upstairs neighbours, combined with the noise of TV and distant music (and the desperation of an over-tired parent wanting to switch off for the night).