Saturday, March 25, 2017

Seeing What’s Not There

The Science channel carries a program named What on Earth? The program examines mysterious images captured by satellite cameras and tries to determine what is actually being seen.

Last week, the program discussed what appeared to be a large face engraved on a Ukrainian field.  The optical illusion turned out to be uneven terrain, but it illustrated a well-known phenomenon: the tendency for humans to impose a pattern even upon random features. We are wired to make sense of what we see even when what we see doesn’t actually make sense.

I was long aware of the phenomenon, but I had never encountered its name until this program. It’s called pareidolia, and it’s a common phenomenon. Human faces and their expressions are very important to us from infancy on. It explains why we see faces in clouds, in ink blots, in geological features, on tree bark, on the surface of the moon, and even on toast and muffins. Of course, it can expand in scope so that we see animals, buildings, other anatomical features, and so on.

The word derives from the Greek words para (παρά), instead of, and eidōlon (εδωλον), image, form, or shape.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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