Monday, September 20, 2010


This morning I learned a new word: pareidolia.

According to Wikipedia, "Pareidolia (pronounced /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek παρά (para- – "beside", "with", or "alongside"—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) andεἴδωλον (eidōlon – "image"; the diminutive of εἴδος, eidos – "image", "form", "shape"). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia." Hmm, apophenia, I haven't looked that one up yet.

As an art historian I had long been familiar with the tendency of Renaissance artists such as Mantegna and Duerer to include "hidden" images in clouds. Mantegna's Vienna St. Sebastian contains a remarkable example of clouds simulating a rider in the sky above. By contrast, medieval art, which is not realistic, does not seem to afford this possibility. As a familiar passage in Shakespeare's Hamlet shows, clouds offer a very tempting area for the detection or pseudodetection of such gestalts.

Television has familiarized us with current popular versions of such projections. For example, in 1978 a New Mexican woman found that the burn marks on a tortilla she had made corresponded to the traditional Catholic depiction of Jesus Christ's face. Thousands of people came to view the wondrous tortilla. There have been many other sightings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the word Allah. There is even a market for such objects on ebay. The phenomenon is not limited to the Abrahamic religions. In September, 2007, the so-called "monkey tree phenomenon" caused a brief sensation in Singapore. A callus on a tree resembled a monkey, and credulous believers flocked to the tree to pay homage to the "Monkey God."

A somewhat gross example occurred in a sketch by the Upright Citizens Brigade broadcast on Comedy Central in 2007. An earnest Christian holds up a bowl that is said to contain the image of Jesus in spaghetti. A sudden power failure occurs and when the lights are restored the spaghetti Jesus has vanished. The tell-tale red marks on a young woman's face in the audience reveal that she is the culprit. She is made to regurgitate it, and the image reappears: the vomit Jesus. Then the sequence is repeated with a man who eats the vomit Jesus. Instead of vomiting it, he defecates it: feces Jesus.

The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia by creating bloblike forms in which the subject is encouraged to spot images. This practice, now largely abandoned, is supposed to reveal significant aspects of the personality, including sexual orientation. Ostensibly, the thoughts or feelings of the respondent are projected onto the ambiguous inkblot images. In this instance projection is a form of "directed pareidolia" because the Rorschach cards have been deliberately designed so as not to resemble anything in particular.

Some evolutionary theorists, such as the late Carl Sagan, have proposed that as a survival technique, human beings are "hard-wired" from birth to identify the human face, as with a care giver. This propensity allows people to use minimal details to recognize faces even at a distance and in poor visibility. Yet the knack can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. The evolutionary advantages of being able to distinguish friend from foe with split-second accuracy are obvious.

There are also auditory parallels, as when listeners claim to hear hidden messages in rock songs that are played backwards. Sometimes travelers in exotic foreign countries where they do not know the language report that, when they were tired, it seemed that people were actually speaking in English. It is not clear what survival purposes such auditory illusions might have, casting doubt on the whole theory.

What remains, I think, is that human beings are programmed to look for meaning, and we may find it even when it is not there.

UPDATE (Sept. 27)

My Australian friend David Buncel has reminded me of an important passage in Leonardo’s “Treatise on Painting.” This reads as follows: “I will not forget to insert into these rules, a new theoretical invention for knowledge’s sake, which, ,although it seems of little import and good for a laugh, is nonetheless, of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions. This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types. If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms, in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures, faces with strange expressions, and myriad things which you can transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks. These are like the sound of bells, in whose tolling, you hear names and words that your imagination conjures up.

“Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.”

In another passage Leonardo da Vinci ascribes this practice to Sandro Botticelli--why I am not sure.

As Mr. Buncel informs me, the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp offers a speculative interpretation that is worth pondering (“Behind the Picture,” London, 1997, p. 243).

"He (Leonardo) agrees with Alberti that 'inventione' or composition of narrative [storia] is the 'end of such scientia'. When he looks at stains on walls into which he imaginatively projects new subjects, he is seeking 'various inventione'. Human powers of invention occupy a central place in Leonardo's ideas, in all the fields we now know as art, science and technology. He sees inventiveness as taking the human potential for making things beyond the scope of those created by nature. The painter's works are 'more infinite than those made by nature' allowing him to invent an infinite number of things that 'nature never created'. He writes that 'nature is concerned only with the production of elementary things but man from these elementary things produces an infinite number of compounds, although he has no power to create any elementary thing except another like himself, that is his children'. This notion of invention is not that of the alchemists, who aspire to create gold and the 'philosopher's stone', but involves compounding and building upon the multitudinous items created by nature."

There is now a book-length study of the overall problem by the Swiss art historian Dario Gamboni: Potential Images (2004). After discussing the earlier permutations of the idea in some detail, Gamboni focuses on modern art.

The perennial problem, of course, is this. When we detect or affect to detect such images in paintings or other visual media, are we simply “seeing things” (which is what Leonardo recommends), or are we genuinely recovering an element that has simply not been generally noticed before?

The matter goes to the larger issue of creativity. Are there in fact exercises which can usefully stimulate the creative faculty by inducing us to think outside the box, or by other means?



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