The Brain’s Tendency to See Faces That Aren’t There May Be Innate to Spiritual Experiences
Three thousand years ago in ancient China, sages stuck red-hot pokers into empty turtle shells to study how cracks developed on the flat side of the shell. According to the pattern created by the cracks, the sages predicted the future and spoke with the ancestors.
What is the basis for these and other prophetic visions throughout history? Why did Moses see God in the flames of a burning bush and the Greeks hear the voice of Zeus in the wind from the sacred oak of Dodona? When people close their eyes to pray or meditate, what voices do they hear?
Cognitive-religious scientists have been trying to answer these questions since the 1980s. They call these practices of finding meaningful patterns in visual information “pareidolia.” Seeing faces in clouds, animal shapes on tree trunks, and hearing voices in noise are more commonplace examples of pareidolia. Unfortunately, scientists have tended to reduce these phenomena to a kind of cognitive short circuit. This is partly because the first scientist to use the term, German psychiatrist Karl Ludwig Kahlbaum, defined it negatively as “the illusions of judgment” caused by “imperfect perception”.
The negative connotation remained. For example, in 1995, Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist, argued that pareidolia is an evolutionary adaptation for recognizing faces and shapes in poor lighting. When we “fail” we see things that aren’t there, and that’s called pareidolia. Other scientists argue that pareidolia is the result of a natural human tendency called “anthropomorphism” to project humanity or animosity onto the inanimate world.
Psychologists still treat pareidolia as a clinical pathology or psychosis to see things “where they don’t really exist.” In short, scientists have largely dismissed or attempted to explain the religious, supernatural, and aesthetic experiences of pareidolia rather than taking them seriously.
But consider at least one plausible and far less pejorative story about pareidolia. What if it wasn’t cognitive failure? And if the images of pareidolia are really there in a different and meaningful sense? Indeed, what if, in a fairly broad way, every pattern humans have ever found came to us through some version of pareidolia?
When we see culturally and historically agreed-upon pareidolia, we call it “reality,” but when we see patterns created by nature or ones that other people cannot verify, they are “illusions.” But what would we miss if artists and scientists hadn’t “seen” patterns no one else had before, like the double helix structure of DNA or the wonderful swirls that Da Vinci drew and painted by Van Gogh? Humans create a culture based on agreeing and disagreeing about which pareidolia patterns are real or not. Is there really a face on Mars? Is the big dipper really the? If our common beliefs and practices involving them are real, then yes, in a sense, they really are there.
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In other words, pareidolia is not a failure but a The source enormous cultural innovations, even if certain patterns did not prevail. For example, scientific studies show that artistic, musical, and religious people tend to see more pareidolia than others. Perhaps the negative interpretation of pareidolia as an error has more to do with the scientific desire for quantifiably true and false models than with the phenomenon itself.
But here is the central question left unanswered by most scientific attempts to explain the experience of pareidolia. Why do people feel the patterns so aesthetically and even spiritually significant? Indeed, German psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach’s famous inkblot tests were based on an attempt to figure out just that. But if Carl Sagan is right and pareidolia is just a mistake, people should quickly realize their misperception and adjust to reality. But instead, the opposite is happening. People often treat pareidolia as evidence of prophecy, epiphany, beauty, joy, insight, and even God. Obviously, not everyone does, but unless we’re willing to attribute these experiences to insanity, stupidity, or some unexplained tendency toward anthropomorphism, we need another explanation.
Let’s start with what we know. Studies show that people tend to see more pareidolia in fractal patterns than in non-fractal patterns. A fractal is an iterative pattern that looks the same across scales, like a tree whose fork pattern repeats in its branches, twigs, and leaf veins. In this kind of natural fractal, each leaf looks like a small version of the whole tree. Many natural phenomena, such as rocks, mountains, clouds, rivers, plants, trees, animal coloring, waves, and wind, can have similar fractal patterns.
Additionally, we know that “nature is traditionally fundamental to divination, whose indigenous metaphorical roots refer to natural phenomena such as stones, water, and animal behavior,” as anthropologist Patrick Curry writes. Cracks in turtle shells, for example, and the distribution of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup show fractal patterns. Most recorded visions of gods also occur in natural or fractal patterns such as fire, trees, clouds/smoke, or a combination of natural fractal patterns. When people close their eyes and remain seated in prayer or meditation, the fractal pattern of their spontaneous brain activity enters a slower “alpha” state. This sluggish state is associated with wandering and creative association or “cognitive pareidolia,” as our thoughts play among fractal background brain activity. Fractal patterns are also pleasing to the eye, endlessly fascinating to see and hear, and even inspire feelings of beauty.
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Could there be a connection between fractals and pareidolia? Indeed, it seems that fractal patterns are at the heart of pareidolia, and pareidolia is at the heart of our artistic, scientific, religious, mythological, even paranormal imagination.
Yet, in the case of religion in particular, why should fractal pareidolia cause such spiritual Where prophetic meaning? Maybe that’s why: nature uses dynamic fractal patterns on all scales of reality, from the distribution of dark matter to the growth of slime mold, including our bodies and brains.
So in the game of pareidolia, we do what the world does more generally. And that experience is what can bring about feelings of interconnectedness with the world at the heart of many spiritual sensibilities. It may also suggest a predictive or prophetic intuition about how these patterns will develop, since fractals resemble each other across scales.
This, of course, is only a very general source of religious experience. Each fractal pattern and dynamic has a unique cultural, historical, psychological and geographical context. Thus, not all pareidolia are experienced as religious. But many different explanations, experiences and religious experiences can emerge. Some call the religious experience occasioned by pareidolia unity, others plurality. Some might call it God or gods or maybe extraterrestrials, or pure consciousness.
What I mean here is that on some level, not necessarily consciously, pareidolia reminds us of our interconnectedness with the world whose fractal patterns and dynamics we use in our body and mind to experience that same world. . Pareidolia often gives the feeling that we are not separated from nature, but woven into it.
In short, pareidolia is not a cognitive failure and should not be used to dismiss religious experience. Indeed, pareidolia is perhaps at the heart of all our ways of knowing, not just religious ones.
Learn more from Thomas Nail on consciousness and neurology: