Pareidolia: Perceiving Extra Significance


This is a NASA photograph of a stellar explosion from 2014. (Read: ‘Hand of God’ Spotted by NASA Space Telescope (Photo)). Although an entirely natural phenomenon, many ordinary people pursuing a theistic agenda, choose to see this image as the ‘Hand of God’ in operation in the universe – apparently putting on a show for NASA to report back to humanity! This image (probably an optical illusion caused by viewing events at long distances and through significant time delays), certainly does seem to be very similar to what an x-ray of a hand and lower arm might look like. Of course, there is no discernible reason why this should be an x-ray of a human hand, or that matter an act of god – but it is interesting to not that ‘natural’ phenomena have probably fuelled the human imagination for much of its evolutionary process. In the old days, it may be that such random associations gave humanity a definite advantage over other species that worked only from instinct. Seeing meaning in random arrangements of light and dark, and then ascribing a certain value to such associations is generally termed ‘pareidolia’ – a Greek word comprising of the roots ‘para’ (meaning ‘instead of’, or ‘as well as’), and ‘eidōlon’ (meaning ‘image’, or ‘shape’). In the context of this concept, ‘pareidolia’ refers to seeing (or hearing) meaningful images, sounds or patterns within natural or artificial structures, beyond or outside of the actual physical (or audial) parameters that define the object in question.. An example of this might be a water-stain on a stone-wall or barn door, within which the faithful discern the face of Mary or Christ – whereas non-believers simply perceive a damp patch. Pareidolia refers not to the human mind’s ability to clearly, correctly and reliably discern the exact physical (or audial) parameters of an object, (which is the basis of material science), but rather to the human habit of ‘projecting’ an extra significance upon an object which does not exist in the physical world. This means that throughout the exercise of pareidolia – the human mind is engaged in projecting ‘imagined’ content onto a physical object – whilst assuming this extra content exists a priori in the physical object itself, and has had nothing to do with the mind that has generated it. What I find interesting, is that the ability to see objects clearly, is also the basis for ‘seeing’ or ‘projecting’ extra significance upon an object that might not be there. It could well be that this ‘projecting’ has been an important component of human evolutionary development, that in the past generated behaviours that benefited human survival as a species. Being ‘fearful’ of things such as unfamiliar terrain, dark forests or unexplored caves, etc, (assuming all kinds of nasty or deadly hidden attributes), may well have contributed to human survival, whether or not an ‘actual’ threat existed. This evolutionary response developed into religion, whereby gods and spirits were seen everywhere, and finally into modern science where physical objects were discerned exactly for what they are – free of any projected imagination. However, seeing extra significance as patterns, might well be an important factor in mathematics, whereby new understandings are developed from the old – simply because they were ‘imagined’ as existing – before they are proven to ‘actually’ exist. Therefore, the human habit of ‘pareidolia’ might well be crucial for the future development of scientific understanding, providing it is developed beyond the dogmatic, and into the progressive. Finally, religious imagination is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it generates the more noble qualities of the human mind. It could be that a religious individual could well see two dimensions at once when discerning an object; a concrete physical image (the basis of science), and an ethereal representation (the basis of religion, and perhaps scientific progression).  This area needs more exploration and development, but it requires a moving beyond the current limitations that define human understanding. Multidimensional ‘seeing’ is not an error – even though its application needs defining and its function more precisely developed. Seeing extra significance where none exists might be incorrect in one instance, but might be applicable in another set of circumstance (as of yet undefined). It is true that virtually all scientific advancement has come from individuals ‘imagining’ something different to what exists today, and working upon their speculative ideas until they become a material reality.

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