Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 2, 2021

My brain on patterns

While husband Art was busy dealing with highway traffic, I was experiencing an intense case of "pareidolia" (pronounced parr-i-DOH-lee-uh) in the passenger seat. But no need to worry. I doubt it's contagious and is more pleasant than it sounds.

On that beautiful sunny day, the sky was a vivid blue, with dramatic cirrus, cumulus, and stratocumulus formations "blossoming" all around us. They were just clouds, but I could almost "see" dragons, birds, dinosaurs and human faces in them.

No, I had not been experimenting with any controlled substances. It's all explained by the human brain being so good at seeing patterns that it often imagines things that aren't really there. "The man in the moon" is an example. Another is the smiling face suggested by two dots and a curved line on a yellow circle or tree trunks twisted into what we think to be grimacing faces.

Returning from a national creche convention a couple of years ago, I was primed to “see” the Holy Family everywhere. Upon visiting my friend Sandy, I remarked that three small rocks next to her house looked for all the world to me like Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. She didn't say anything, probably thinking I was a little "loopy."

Pareidolia - from the Greek words "para," meaning resembling, and "eidolon" meaning image - is a category of "apophenia" - seeing meaningful patterns in randomness. It occurs specifically with visual stimuli, although it has been reported with sounds as well.

And the phenomenon is probably as old as mankind. In a November 2020 post on earthsky.org, Larry Sessions, a former planetarium director, explained:

To a certain extent, the definition of pareidolia can be used to describe how the ancients connected the dots and came up with the patterns we know as constellations. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see a lion in Leo, a scorpion in Scorpius, or a mighty hunter in Orion. ...

The word Pareidolie was first used by the German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum in an 1866 paper. He proposed pareidolia as a term for "delusions of the judgment" caused by "imperfect perception." His influence caused scholars to see pareidolia negatively, and was even considered to be a sign of dementia.

Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach presented inkblots to patients to test what patterns they saw in them to assess their psychological state. The test is still used today, although its reliability and validity have been questioned.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, say seeing faces in everyday objects is common. In a paper published in "Psychological Science", Colin Palmer, from the UNSW School of Psychology, said:

Pages on websites like Flickr and Reddit have accumulated thousands of photographs of everyday objects that resemble faces ... A striking feature of these objects is that they not only look like faces but can even convey a sense of personality or social meaning. For example, the windows of a house might feel like two eyes watching you ...

According to the researchers, face pareidolia uses the same brain processes we use to recognize and interpret real ones. While human faces all look different, they share common traits, such as the spatial arrangement of the eyes, nose and mouth.

"This basic pattern of features that defines the human face is something that our brain is particularly attuned to," Palmer said, "and is likely to be what draws our attention to pareidolia objects."

But face perception isn't just about noticing the presence of a face. He said there's an evolutionary advantage in knowing who people are and being able to read information from their faces, such as whether they're happy or angry. It’s also important in detecting predators.

Other researchers are conducting studies to determine the link between pareidolia and creativity. Neuroscientists at the University of Bern quoted a passage from the diary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who saw this ability as a core concept of creativity:

[I]f you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.

In my "I know it when I see it" column, I mentioned I and others have struggled to capture what the core element of creativity is. Coupling Da Vinci's comments with the work of pareidolia researchers would seem to suggest that it may spring from the pattern-recognition skills of the brain.

Art said when he was teaching basic electrical concepts, he often drew parallels to other phenomena his students were already familiar with - a child swinging or a struck bell ringing react just as certain circuitry does.

Perhaps what we see as creativity is all about our brain generalizing, of taking bits of what we have experienced in the past and seeing the similarities with what is before us - whether that "before us" is the face of another person or clouds in a summer sky.

Left-to-right: the "Holy Family" I encountered in Sandy's garden. A cloud formation seen while traveling. The same formation as on the left, but with the elephant my brain superimposed on the formation.

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