Pareidolia is a recent coinage but the phenomenon is quite well known. I had several encounters with pareidolia during Pope John Paul's 1993 visit to Denver during which I was in the Papal choir. Here is an entry from my journal for 8/15/2003. We were at the Mother Cabrini shrine in the mountains just outside of Denver:
"We met an interesting fellow from Chicago who had a set of allegedly miraculous
photographs that he had collected. Some of them show a crucifix in a cemetery
and each picture has a strange lighting effect. One for instance shows a beam of
light shooting from the out stretched hand of Christ. Quite frankly most look
like aberrations caused by light shining through the lens at a particular angle.
It strikes me as odd that the machine could record these miraculous images by
chance but the person taking the picture was not aware of them... "
Here is a link to similar sorts of pictures.
"There were several images seemed not so easily explained. One showed a
seemingly solid image of a robed woman floating in the air. It didn't look like
a deliberate fake but all these strike me as looking too hard for
miracles...Maybe I should be the Pope's Devil's advocate on these matters."
Since we were at a holy place some of the other people there began reporting odd things. One of my fellow characters reported a vision related to looking at the sun through slitted eyes. He reported that:
"the sun seemed to resemble a fragmenting host (that is a communion host of
course) with the upper part complete but the lower part shattering in fragments
which seemed to increase and not get any smaller..."
The rest of his description was quite psychedelic and I can see how the crowd at Fatima could undergo some sort of mass hallucination that is described as the Miracle of the Sun. Other people were claiming that their crosses were turning to gold, or that they were smelling roses when none were around, this of course being a favorite sort of miracle associated with saints-though usually it is the dead body smelling of roses or flowers. I think there is something in us that actually likes to suspend judgment; quite frankly I felt the same sort of excitement that I did when I as a young teenager playing with a ouch board.
John mentions that pareidolia can be auditory as well. I am not sure if this qualifies, but here a related sort of phenomenon happened to Richard Dawkins when he was young. He tells about this in his recent book, The God Delusion:
"Once as a child I heard a ghost; a male voice murmuring, as if in recitation or
prayer. I could almost but not quite make out the words, which seemed to have a
serious, solemn timbre...as I got closer it grew louder and then it suddenly
'flipped' inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was.
The wind, gusting through the keyhole, was creating sounds..." (Dawkins pp
Dawkins discusses this as part of his argument against the proof for God based on personal experience since the human brain has very powerful simulation and modeling capabilities.
He concludes in the following way:
"If you've had such an experience, you may find yourself believing firmly that
it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it,
especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful
workings." (Dawkins p 92)
By real Dawkins means related to something else other than your own brain's modeling efforts. After all, certainly the experience can subjectively real or in the case of synchronicity, the connection imbued with subjective meaning.
I had a good example of this when I was an undergraduate. I was standing outside the cooperative where I was living at Cornell, a place called Watermargin , and I was talking with some of the other residents about insects-specifically the green lacewing. I think I was telling them that lacewings were predators which they are, and I happened to raise my left hand's index finger just in time for a green lacewing to actually land on it. Of course everyone went oooh and ahhh though perhaps their wonder had been heightened by concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinal in their blood streams.
I suspect my audience and I would have still had a certain wonderful sense of surprise at this event. It seems that we find it rewarding emotionally to use our brain's simulation software whether we are aware of it or not. We love optical illusions, including ambiguous pictures such as those of in symbolist art, or in the works of M.C. Escher. As poets we often practice found poetry and use juxtaposition of words and images as inspiration for writing. As scientists we are constantly, as Dawkins did, spotting possible connections and filtering them through the scientific method to assess their meaning in the external world.
I ran across a very interesting example just this morning reading Steven Jay Gould's book of essays, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. In his essay, "The Titular Bishop of Titiopolis," about Nicolaus Steno, often considered the founder of modern geology, there is a little gem about an agate in which could be seen "Christ on the cross with all the proper accoutrements, including a sun on the favored right side and a moon on the despised left." Gould's point was that as long as all odd things in rock were lumped together, fossils as well as these occasional accidental images could be lumped together as due to the plastic power in the rocks themselves and there would be no science of paleontology today.
What Steno, according to Gould, did was to classify objects in rock into those that were formed before the rock itself(e.g. fossils) and those that were formed after the rock (e.g. intrusions, veins, agate etc) that might "by accident resemble some abstract form or design." Steno's arguments and classification scheme for objects embedded in rocks enabled naturalists to understand that sedimentary rocks were 'created' after the fossils in them has solidified. Marine fossils high in the mountains must have 'solidified' before the sedimentary rock that surrounds them. The implication is that the Earth has a history, that things were not as some might argue created in place and that it is possible to infer a good deal about the Earth's history by careful inference. This powerful notion came about, according to Gould by Steno's reclassification of objects found in rocks into two groups in a way that had not been carefully done before. So from Steno we get to Lyell and from Lyell we get to Darwin and the intimate evolutionary connections among all the world's organisms that modern biology so rightfully celebrates.
Thus, whether in poetry or science, we use the powerful pattern recognition systems embodied in pareidolia and we relish making meaningful connections and sorting out ambiguity. I find it odd and tragic that some people can't seem to do that. They are so literal they cannot accept the power of metaphor in sacred text, or so hung up on the notion of intentional design that when confronted with the illusion of design they retreat from empiricism much like what Dawkins might have done had he been a little more frightened and impressionable.