Friday, July 17, 2009


It's interesting how many people pay attention to--and even worship--the phenomena known as "pareidolia". Pareidolia refers to images that appear in ordinary objects. The ones that really get attention are the ones of religious figures. One might see the Virgin Mary in a cloud, or a tree trunk. Jesus has been seen in a huge variety of bizarre objects and places. Sometimes non-Christian deities are seen (such as the Hindu Ganesha), or even deceased celebrities (cue the recent rash of Michael Jackson "paredolias", often called "Jackodolias").

Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine, has a whole section devoted to this phenomena. Phil is a hardcore skeptic--I agree with a lot of what he says, but he truly dismisses anything that smacks of irrationality as completely false, and I don't always agree with him there. Just because some things don't measure up to scientific inquiry doesn't necessarily mean they have no merit. Basically--I am totally with Phil with regard to Creationism and the anti-vax movement. Some other things--ghosts, psychic phenomena, astrology--well, I guess I'm not as skeptical, and reserve judgment. I think the lines between believers and non-believers will always be strictly drawn there.

Back to pareidolia--with credit to Phil, here are some interesting pareidolia links:

Virgin Mary in a Marmite Jar Lid (or maybe it's Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap)

Virgin Mary in a Pancake Griddle

Jesus in a Piece of Toast (and Satan on the other side?)

Jesus in a Kit-Kat Bar

Jesus in a Meteorite

Jesus in the Skull of a Catfish

Virgin Mary in Bird Droppings

Phil has another post about randomness, and the mind's desire to see patterns in things, which is a very good summation of what happens not only happens with this type of pareidolia, but also explains images seen in many "ghost" photographs.

Recently I had a discussion with my friend's son about randomness and patterns. He pointed out that most people who find patterns in random events are unaware of probability and how it works. (Fair enough in my case--they never even covered probability in math class. I'd love to understand it). But the psychology behind it is what is fascinating to me. We do look for meaning in things--maybe that meaning is really there, some kind of "message", maybe it's just a coincidence. But I tend to think that even if something has a "message", it's a message from the unconscious mind. When we try to unravel questions in our minds, when we don't have enough information to make a decision, sometimes we do unconsciously know the right thing to do. In the same way that you might have a dream about something that challenges you, you may start "seeing" patterns in different places. They are probably meaningful to no one but you in that moment. But it's funny how our unconscious minds work to get our conscious attention.

I think the pareidolia phenomena reflects people's desire to have concrete, visible affirmations of their faith. I can't imagine any other reason why someone would pay $28,000 for grilled cheese sandwich that someone says looks like the Virgin Mary. (OK, to be fair, a casino bought that one as a piece of pop culture. But still...). No one would pay any attention to it, otherwise.

One of my Facebook friends made the point that Jesus and the Virgin Mary seem to appear everywhere but in Church. An excellent point, which I think adds credence to Jung's assertion that religion is designed to keep you from religious experience. God isn't meant to be found in Church.

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