Thursday, February 8, 2007


For those of you keeping score at home, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that my last couple of posts have featured objects that have been clearly contrived, in that no one is waving them around claiming that they unexpectedly appeared, only noticed as the toast sat in wait of being slathered with butter and jam. They are nothing more than crusty bits of satire.

While readers of Madonna of the Toast may cast skeptical glances upon some of the objects in the book, the people responsible for discovering the objects maintain that these visual manifestations have nothing to do with them, aside from the fact that they heated up the pan or squeezed the bottle of lotion. The folks that I spoke with believe that their findings came to light because of divinity, or physics, or chemistry, or without any good reason aside from the fact that they happened.

There is a term for these sorts of occurrences: pareidolia. A very basic definition for this term, as it applies to Madonna of the Toast, is that as humans, our brains are hardwired to recognize human forms in everything.

From random rocks:

To water stains:

And this is what is really interesting about pareidolia: the tendency for people to not only recognize the lines and curves of human noses, chins, eyes and entire bodies, but that people recognize combinations of these shapes that remind them of recognizable figures, no matter if the figure is sacred or secular.

This is what generates swarming media hubbub. If I revealed a beer-coaster stain that resembled my Uncle Mark, I doubt you’d ever see me talking about it on CNN. But, if I touted a burn scar on my forearm that was the spitting image of Paula Abdul, you better believe I could get some attention for that. (Note to self: Find someone to make me a Paula Abdul branding iron.)

These stories are remarkable because they elicit action, from the people who find them to the people that want to gawk. It is fair to say that most of the people I chose to feature in the book got a lot more than they bargained for when they found themselves looking at something, recognizing it and then saying to anyone within earshot, “What do you see?”

Because when more than one person sees something in a place where it’s not meant to be, that sighting takes on meaning, and in meaning people root belief. Belief can take shape many ways, but it is a core human trait, and in that sense, all of these instances share a common factor: they are byproducts of the human condition, something none of us can escape (with the exception of all you aliens reading this blog).


Raymond said...

The concept of pareidolia is interesting. For years, people of looks for their one likeness in rock formation and clouds.

On the coast of Taiwan, there is a formation which is known to resemble Richard Nixon.

It look better in real life!


John said...

This explains why I ruin abstract art for anyone within earshot.

I figured I was just a "literalist." If the proverbial Emperor is naked, I say so.

But no.. I'm a Pareidoliac. Maybe there's a pill I can take.