When I was in Junior High School, we were encouraged to read a little book called “How to Build a Better Vocabulary.” This was actually quite an amusing book that in part taught through cartoons. Each chapter began with a cartoon. I had two favorites. The first was an ancient Roman ice skater in toga trying to complete a perfect figure VIII. The second was a little boy talking excitedly to his mother. “Mommy, mommy, I learned a new word today. Can you surmise what it is? I’ll give you three surmises.” Well the word for today is “pareidolia.”
According to the Wikipedia: “Pareidolia (/pærɨˈdoʊliə/ parr-i-DOH-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia. 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 when played in reverse.”
Oh, hell! Now I have to look up apophenia. Again Wiki to the rescue: “Apophenia /æpɵˈfiːniə/ is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term is attributed to Klaus Conrad by Peter Brugger, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general, such as with gambling and paranormal phenomena.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Well maybe. OK; so stick with me. Man in the moon, Moon rabbit, objects and faces in clouds, those we can understand. Then there’s the famous “Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich.” In 2004, when it was already ten years old, it sold on Ebay for $28,000. My personal favorite is “The face of Mother Teressa on a cinnamon bun.” I can see the face, but it looks more like a smurf to me.
These food pareidolia remind me of a story that one of my colleagues told me when I was in graduate school. He was late for work one day because his young son had thrown a fit over breakfast. The lad had decided that his pancake looked like a giraffe and when mom decapitated the supposed giraffe, all hell broke loose. I asked if the flapjack did indeed resemble a giraffe and my friend said: “not really.” Therein lies the difference between adults and children, I guess. We don’t all construct the same associations. The pareidolia is, of course, the firm basis of the Rorschach or inkblot test.
NASA recently released the ultimate pareidolia from its high energy X-ray satellite, NuSTAR, (see Figure 1 blue). Lower-energy X-ray light previously detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is added and shown in green and red. This object has been nicknamed the “Hand of God,” and it is technically a pulsar wind nebula, powered by the leftover, dense core of a star that blew up in a supernova explosion. The stellar corpse, called PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short, is a pulsar: it rapidly spins around, seven times per second, firing out a particle wind into the material around it — material that was ejected in the star’s explosion. These particles are interacting with magnetic fields around the material, causing it to glow with X-rays.
It does look like a hand or “The Hand of God.” It is highly reminiscent of the nebulous hand that holds captive the Star Ship Enterprise in the first Star Trek series episode “Who mourns for Adonais.”
Such 3D pareidolia are interesting because the probably do not retain their cohesiveness in terms of what we see as you move around them. Which in this case, of course, we cannot do.
I am personally quite sensitive to these associations. I am forever seeing faces in the folds of drapes and clothing. Also I have been informally been working for several years on a photoessay that I refer to as “The Quest for the Ents,” taking pictures of faces in trees. The most successful, an image of a venerable sycamore, is shown in Figure 2 and was taken several years ago in Central Park in New York City.
Perhaps the sweetest of pareidolia is contained in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when (IV.5) Ophelia says: “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.” The name pansy is derived from the French word pensée “thought”, and if you look closely and, perhaps squint just a bit, you will see a little pensive, perhaps lion-like, face in the pansy flower.