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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Word List #9: PAREIDOLIA

[Norma photo taken yesterday]

Thurber had poor eyesight but managed to use it to his advantage as a cartoonist. He'd imagine what things might look like beyond his limited physical ability to see them, draw them large then leave the printer to reduce them for magazine pages. This became communication, funny communication --true communication because it was accompanied by laughter-- and beautiful. For beauty we must consult Francis Bacon: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." It is this same strangeness that makes you beautiful. But yes, it's the truth!

You know what truth is. It's what you learn as a child from your elders --like your big brother who took you to see "The Sword And The Rose" in the mid 1950s:

Me: So why'd they call 'im Eight?
Him: There were seven other kings called Henry and he was named after them.
Me: Why were THEY Henrys?
Him: They were named after each other.
Me: So who was the first Henry named after?
Him: The rest of them, I guess.

This makes perfect sense to me, even now. Truth is also what you learn from yourself in childhood, like imagining what Grampa was up to when he dressed up and drove his ancient Ford into town. I knew Grampa used to run a saloon in the Old West, and I followed westerns on the radio, the movies and our primitive TV set. I knew Grampa was off on high adventure, getting his dag nabbitted and horn swoggled, maybe drygulched or beheaded by an English king but would somehow triumph and bring me back a candy bar. And I could reinforce this truth by watching "Train To Tombstone" on TV.

In 1955 my father brought home our first TV set. It was a Zenith Portable, which meant it was about 100 pounds but had handholds on each side of its sheet-steel cabinet so two or three people could lift it. It was full of vacuum tubes and heated up half the front room when we turned it on. It got two channels, both would play the same old oater every day, "Train To Tombstone". My brother and I would watch that a lot and got to where we could blurt the actors' lines before they delivered them. Then, one strange day, something peculiar happened after we turned on the set, waited and chatted while it warmed up and got ready to recite the script. Cowboys were flying off the ground, getting shot then running away backwards! The whole movie was running backwards. I was horrified. "What is it? What is it?" I cried to my brother.

He replied in awe: "Train FROM Tombstone!"

These are examples of the human brain seeking ever-expanding regions of organization. We sublimate much of what we find. Visual part of this process is called pareidolia, psychological perception of random stimuli composing maybe a face in a cliff side, or a mountain looking like three presidents. We see, recognize, then seem to forget but recognize more readily later. The mind is constantly conducting a Rorschach test with disappearing ink.

Consider the photo over this essay. There is a tree and a roof line, but the mind insists upon morphing leaves and branches into a figure. Its arm and paintbrush are undoubtedly branches and twigs. Observe the face closely, especially the brow and nose, and you'll see the figure is really leaves and tricks of sunlight. Why it is wearing my hat is an enigma I shall address in another essay.


  1. Dear former student: Our teachers are our students and vice versa. I recall a student of mine in high school in the 1960s who reported back to me that friends of his were smoking dope in the field during lunch and that he found the experience not particularly interesting or enlightening. Perhaps that's why I said or thought to myself, "That's why they call it dope."

    Your pareidolia illustrates that same point: vision-challenged creators like Thurber and Joyce saw far beyond the standard spectra.

    OTOH. here's critique from David Hume, probably one of the foremost "utilitarian" philosophers: "There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us.*

    However, having experienced myself such phenomena as the face on Mars, Our Lady of Watsonville, and come to value Rorschach test results, the power of subliminal imaging and sounds, and sub- and unconscious learning through dreams, automatic writing, and more, I know you are on to something that guys like Hume could never grok.

  2. 1960s eh? You sure you saw me? I'm pretty sure I was a hallucination back then. Seriously tho, I've enjoyed reading recent articles on pareidolia and apophenia by your friend, Professor Hoopes. Also, your own psychological inquiries over the years have much interested me.

  3. I'm not sure why, but I have a tendency to conjure little faces on the floor or walls (not just at this house) when I'm sitting on the toilet. Why THEN, I wonder...

    There is a crab with the image of a human face on its shell that managed to evolve for reasons you describe here... we couldn't eat our own faces.

  4. Thank you for reading my essay, CarrieBoo. I too have conjured faces on the bathroom wall, and as a child in the grain of classroom wood-paneling. It's sign of a lively mind. I even got so I did't confuse the two rooms. And for people like us the clouds are a wonderland!

  5. I loved"Train from Tombstone." Hilarious.


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