Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pareidolia, Seeing Patterns, Making Meaning

Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (art forms of nature)
On one level, seeing shapes and patterns where they are not "really"  there may be called pareidolia, most often ridiculed as a psychosis that sees Madonna and Jesus faces in rock formations and baked goods. But all of our seeing is a process of selecting out and processing that to some extent belies the fact that reality is a mass of non delineated color and light, a mass of shifting  molecules temporarily huddled into seemingly distinct shapes and beings. We can question whether the things we see are really rightly to be delineated as separate or if our particular arrangements of what belongs with what or who with whom are full contextualizations or merely (socially) constructed biases or limitations.

We can say the same thing about language and the concepts that it forms. Many argue that words are a crime against the multifarious differentiation of reality. That they name and delimit what is really irreducible and unnameable. Names and words and categories pull some things together with other things, leaving other things out, and ignore the qualities of the named and categorized things that do not fit in with the given names--qualities that might better fit these things to be named and arranged in different categories altogether. Is the creation of a concept thus a form of pareidolia?

When we note a pattern, say of bird of insect movement, of repeating forms in nature, in fairy tales, or of habitual actions in our own lives, are we ignoring all of the elements that would render the categorized thing, action, or thought unfitting to be classed within the pattern-concept-arrangement? Or is there really a way to establish that something is enough like something else to establish that it is a pattern and thereby attempt to draw meaning from it?

And there is the crisis point: because we want to draw meaning. And we draw meaning from things that repeat, from something that seems to be universal or at least not a mere exclusive random aberration. It might be absolutely accurate to say that everything is everything and thereby all patterns and all names and all conceptualizations are inaccurate and limiting, that the only accurate vision of reality is of a moving mass of colors and light without delineation or individuation.

 Babies start by seeing that way, but over time begin to recognize shapes, distance, faces. Carl Sagan writes that pareidolia itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, since those babies who were able to recognize faces would respond to the faces, smiling, and making eye contact, and thus were cared for and thus survived. This is pretty suggestive, because if we were to consciously try as a culture to repress conceptualization, arrangement, and the meaning making that rests on this patterning process, we would end up being unable to communicate with each other, and we would not only not survive, but we would not be we. Interestingly, autistic children have a hard time making the kind of eye contact that Sagan suggests was good for survival (probably not because they do not recognize faces though).

 Many say we are now becoming a culture of autism, one in which people do not communicate, one in which people are trapped in their own worlds without the ability to share experience, emotion, ideas. Thus, although the process of making arrangements and making concepts does perforce leave things out, although it is always going to be inaccurate, although it may look like psychosis or pareidolia, it seems far better to me to make provisional arrangements and to use language and concepts (while all the while acknowledging that their meanings can be fluid, changing, rearranged) than to exist in an undifferentiated sea of colors and non-shapes of non-delineated and non-communicated non-ideas.

 Metaphor is the temporary union of two things that are not strictly the same, but similar enough that their comparison brings, as Robert Musil wrote, "beauty and excitement into the world". Making meaning is a matter of seeing patterns and making metaphors. These patterns and metaphors are fruitful and have longevity (in the sense of Dawkins's memes--see below) if they reverberate with other humans, suggesting a real shared meaning (not just a random socially constructed one). Let us continue to see patterns and relations, to make provisional arrangements. Let us continue to make meanings.


  1. "Let us continue to see patterns and relations, to make provisional arrangements." Yes. Is any given pattern or concept necessarily "inaccurate and limiting," distorting to a greater or lesser extent the vast, undifferentiated universe of things? Yes. The problem, though, lies not with pattern-making but with the limits of our ability to encapsulate phenomena in our concept or pattern. The better we get at pattern-seeing, the more phenomena we can include in our concept or pattern, and the more meaningful it will be. There is also the fact that the pattern and the pattern-maker are themselves phenomena in the universe, but that's another story, or another part of the same story.

  2. It's our job as humans to find patterns.

  3. Our Proto-Indo-European derived languages including Sanskrit, Latin, English, French, Italian, German and English have a root in Apaurusheya, a Sanskrit term meaning created by other than man or superman. This is most likely not the case as Lao Tzu said "The way is not the worded way." Pareidolia is a different story. It is obviously Apaurusheya. There is meaning in it and it has obvious value as is evident by it having no value ascribed to it by the war-torn world which ascribes to everything what is valuable and what isn't. Everything is a gift of god and a living speaking god.