Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pareidolia and Apophenia

Whenever you see a face in a cloud or the man in the moon you’re experiencing a phenomenon called “pareidoliac apophenia.” One example is the apparent face that emerged from the shadows of a mesa on Mars.

The term apophenia was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958. It refers to our tendency to find meaningful patterns or to draw connections in random sets of data.

In east Asian folklore, by the way, they don’t see a man in the moon; they see a rabbit.

Another example of apophenia is the apparent synchronicity between the 1939 film Wizard of Oz and the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon. If you watch this YouTube clip of the album playing as the movie soundtrack, meaningful connections seem to emerge.

Pareidolia is a specific kind of apophenia where faces or other patterns emerge from random shapes. The Rorschach test is a classic example. It also explains the remarkable discovery in 1978 of the face of Jesus in the burn marks of a tortilla, and the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich.

In September of 2007, a monkey god was observed in a car-damaged tree in Singapore. Pilgrims have flocked there ever since then to offer bananas to the monkey deity.

As artists, we can have some fun with this phenomenon. Whenever I sense a face emerging from the randomness of the world, I like to sketch it, accentuating the pareidolia just slightly. Maybe I’m going crazy, but last week I saw a face in the dormer windows of a building, and did this quick sketch to push it just a little.

Another time on a hike I stopped in my tracks when I saw a face in the rocky cliff. I did this sketch to accentuate the forms just enough to make it apparent, but without making it too obvious, hopefully. Rackham did the same thing with tree roots.

Though I didn’t know the name for it at the time, I used the idea in The World Beneath (1995), where Lee Crabb sees a skull (center) and Oriana sees a mother figure (right) in an apparently random grouping of stalagmites (left). Designing a form that could be interpreted in two different ways was a real brain-teaser.
Wikipedia entries on pareidolia and apophenia and Dark Side of the Rainbow
More on the Monkey Tree phenomenon, link.
Man in the Moon, link.
Rabbit in the Moon, link.
Alien face in duck x-ray, link.
Thanks, Andy


Artemisio said...

awsome entry :) i didnt know finding faces everywhere had a name XD your blog is always very interesting!

Mike Bear said...

Hi James,
I just want to say thanks for making this blog. I'm always hungry to learn more and your blog is very nourishing. I realize how valuable the information you share with us is and I'm very thankful for it. I'll remember that some day when I'm able to share what I discover with other aspiring artists.

Also, I grew up with your Dinotopia books. Incredibly inspiring to an aspiring artist.


René PleinAir said...

Faces in places

Unknown said...

As I was telling Jim, I had a teacher once who routinely made paintings this way. He'd soak a rag in paint, drop it on the paper and look for images in the random application of paint.

The phenomenon is fun for artists, but is nothing supernatural. I guess I might as well throw away that piece of toast that came out with Jack Kirby's face on it!

jeff said...

The Old Man in The Mountain form New Hampshire was a famous face in a place. Alas it is no more.


Shalini said...

James, you are amazing. I never even knew there was a word for this phenomenon.

There's also a cute blog called "Faces in Places".

John P. Baumlin said...

Carl Sagan described this phenomenon in connection with the "face" on Mars in his book The Demon-Haunted World but I don't think even he attached a term to it. Fascinating stuff.

I remember when my son was about four he was afraid of a neighbor's VW, and when I asked him why, he told me, "because it has a mouth and I know it could eat me."

Unknown said...

Good post...the Amittyville Horror movie came to mind when I saw your house sketch. (Freaked Me Out Man!)

I discovered your blog a few days ago - A high quality blog for artists!


Unknown said...

I love this post because I really respond to this phenomenon, I love Rackham and because of him I see a face in every gnarled root. Scott McCloud talks about this too, in understanding comics( which you have a little blurb on the back of!) Mr. McCloud uses the example of an electrical outlet.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys. A quick and strange question for you (and nothing to do with art, alas) A friend of mine is working on his thesis and he needs a word for the kind of places and situations that are stereotypical and more a cultural phenomena than an historically truth, such as 'the Wild West' (complete with cowboys with white stetsons) or 'the jungle' (images of explorers in cookpot surrounded by 'cannibals' with chickenbones through their noses'. These things are stereotypes, yes, but is there a name for *settings* like these?
My friends thesis is about the depiction of the Roman Empire in comedy and what this says about the cultures that made those comedies and he is breaking his head coming up with a good term.

ismael cavazos said...

This is one of my favorite topics! One of the classic elements to "recognizing replicas (simulacra) in patterns" is that each creative individual that comes across it gives it their own name. You will never find the word pareidolia in a print dictionary because it is only used on the internet. Pareidolia is not even used verbally! This word was first used by Steven Goldstein in 1994.
Mentioned in James' blog is the word Apophenia which never took off with the public because it originally described a condition of the mentally ill. The word Simulacra is good, but doesn't conjugate well into a verb form and thus never described the action of this way of seeing. When Salvador Dali started seeing images in a half-sleep state he called it the Paranoiac-Critical Method. Hermann Rorschach and his inkblots - Psychodiagnostik. Justinus Kerner, Klecksographie. When the University of Amsterdam professor, Dario Gamboni, published his book on the subject (2002), he went with "Potential Images"!
As an artist, working with scribbles, I realized tea-leaf reading had the name Tasseography. The art and practice of the Scribble had no official name (in the 1920's Florence Cane invented the Scribble Technique but gave no meta-label for the field),so I invented the word Scribblism.
Following in the footsteps of other creatives, I too came up with a name for the field of information in patterns: Abstract Extractionism, and it has led to some amazing discoveries! Just like Gaskins and his cypress knees I find myself having fun making art out of the everday. This time it's peanuts, in an artform I call Art In A Nutshell. AS THE ONLY PEANUT CARVER IN THE WORLD, I can attest to the powerful yields of creativity and uniqueness that Abstract Extractionism brings to the artist's life. Check out the story of the Old Man in the Peanut and discover for yourself this invigorating artform!
Sincerely, Ismael Cavazos

James Gurney said...

Ismael, thank you, what a tremendous comment! You shed so much light on the lexicography behind the concept. You also bring up a point that fascinates me: how print dictionaries are justifiably conservative, but neologisms abound on the Internet, and live or die by a strange kind of natural selection.

Marionros, the word I've always used for those stereotypes in gag cartoons is "cartoon cliches" and I've seen that term used in other places.

Thanks, everyone for your links and examples of this apophenia (or whatever you call it) phenomenon.

Unknown said...

There is another definition of the word which is far more relevant and provides a tool with which to take the discussion further. It is “The perception of meaningful patterns in apparently random noise”.
Now, rather than the scientific disparagement of excessive religiosity, we can see that Pareidolia, “The perception of meaningful patterns in apparently random noise” is central to scientific discovery and to the expansion of consciousness.
Come and find out more, and share your own thoughts and images here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pareidolia/109172292486316

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Brad, I like that definition, and I think you're right--that sort of right-brain pattern recognition is as important to fundamental scientific discoveries as the left-brain organization and number crunching.

jancko said...

hi james, I been following your blog for a while, you have great information here. I've been working with this project for a while http://jancko.blogspot.com/search/label/arturo%27s%20transmutation and I didn't knew what I was doing until I found out your definitions, thanks for the information!. The illustrations are made on top of potato chips bags from a local company http://vimeo.com/user4239604/videos I will love to see more articles like this one