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Tips on Arguing: Pareidolia

Brandon T. Bisceglia

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Smithsonian Magazine published an article in its November 2009 issue in which Art Historian Henry Adams contended that abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock hid the letters of his name in his

Mental magic? Once you see an eye in this photo of a cloud formation, it'll be hard to ignore. Photograph by Brandon T. Bisceglia.

famous 1943 painting, Mural. Adams’ wife noticed the painter’s name within the otherwise formless mass of shapes in the piece, and once she pointed it out to her husband, he couldn’t help noticing it. Soon after, the world couldn’t help it, either.

But was this couple really seeing what they thought they were? Perhaps not. Pareidolia – the tendency of the mind to incorrectly assign familiar patterns to images or sounds that don’t actually contain those patterns – is a common phenomenon that could account for what the Adamses perceived.

The human mind is built to take shortcuts. It uses learned patterns of recognition to fill in gaps in the senses. Normally this is incredibly useful. Pretend that you are standing on one side of a picket fence. A dog walks by on the other side. All that your eyes see is a flash of fur, a glimpse of a leg. Yet you don’t come to the conclusion that the leg is floating around by itself. Your brain has no trouble figuring out what’s behind the fence, even with a tiny bit of data. It puts together a complete picture, filling in the gaps with your previous knowledge about what dogs look like, how they walk, and so on.

Imagine what the world would be like if you couldn’t draw conclusions based on patterns. Every time you saw a dog, you would not recognize it, even if it was only slightly different than another dog – indeed, even if the same dog walked away and came back. You would be unable to learn anything.

Once in a while, however, the mind’s automatic gap-filler screws up by creating patterns that aren’t actually there. Those screw-ups have caused plenty of controversies in popular culture. For instance, as long as rock music has been inciting kids to rebellious acts, some parents have been convinced that the artists are embedding Satanic messages in their songs that can be heard when played backwards. The parents do hear the messages, at least in their own minds. This is often because someone has already told them what words to listen for. Their minds select the pattern they expect to hear, et voila! Jim Morrison’s lyric, “treasures there,” becomes “I am Satan” when played in reverse.

Pareidolia have even been known to spark conspiracy theories, such as when NASA released the now-infamous “Face on Mars” photographs. The vaguely visage-resembling mound of dirt was taken by a number of UFO enthusiasts as incontrovertible “proof” of intelligent construction, and therefore extraterrestrial life. Some also accused NASA of “covering up” any reports of alien life. The conspiracy theory persists today. Those same people would laugh, though, if you told them that a cloud that looked like a face was proof that there were people inside making it rain (and that meteorologists were covering it up).

What about the Pollock painting, then? Could he really have hidden his name in there? Adams’s article explained that “it may not be possible to answer the question definitively unless scientists use X-ray scanning or some other method to trace which pigments were put down first.”

Until then, the jury is out. But don’t be surprised if this turns out to be one more example of someone’s own mind seeing what it wants to see.

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Tips on Arguing: Pareidolia