“Pareidolia – the perception of apparently significant patterns or recognizable images, especially faces, in random or accidental arrangements of shapes and lines.”
When searching for a definition of pareidolia, the phenomenon is immediately presented as a mere illusion. However, much like pareidolia itself, definitions of this term are flexible, sometimes stretching towards speaking of a desire to see non-existent patterns in shapes. Looking up at the clouds and pointing out the images you see is common game associated with wistful thinking. Both science and philosophy have questioned the nature of seeing, that may be described as a process in which our eyes choose which details to focus on in order to construct an image, meaning that the act of seeing can only ever be fragmented: we can never perceive a whole.
To experience pareidolia can often make you aware of both ‘real’ reality and a chimeric reality. ‘Persona’, a sculpture by Michael Quane, portrays an image of pareidolia which captures the unsettling aspect of the liminality of worlds which the phenomenon can expose, the illusory intervening in the supposed real. The two contorted masks, held almost aimlessly against a phlegmatic, emotionless face, show a moment of unmasking that is all but comforting. However, this sculpture does not necessarily depict an unmasking, or a masking, but an in-between moment of both acts. I think this describes
pareidolia well, because even though we often understand the images we see to only be of the imagination, this does not necessarily mean we completely disregard them. When the concrete world merges back into our vision, we often attempt to reconstruct these images back to the illusory form in which we first perceived them. To me, this appears to be more than a denial of reality but, rather, an understanding of the multiplicity of reality.
When writing this, it wasn’t hard to think back to ‘moments of seeing’ I’ve had which could be called pareidolia. The first example coming to me was from my childhood bedroom, which has a textured artex ceiling. As a child, I remember waking up and seeing the same scene every morning, perhaps slightly altered, of some walking trees with faces, peering at a crocodile carrying a basket on its back and a small rhino with a scarf- all formed by the abstract lines on my ceiling. Another vision I often had was
from outside my old bedroom window – in the distance, there is a tree with long contorted converging branches, creating an image of two galloping horses about to collide. At the time, I obviously never thought of these visions as products of pareidolia, but I also didn’t believe what I was perceiving to be necessarily real. However, I still understood them to make up part of my world, an understanding which kept resonating with me even when I started thinking of these images as pareidolia. Returning to that
room, what used to be a place I would think of as definitive to my character seems strangely unfamiliar. Yet, whenever I am home for the holidays, every time I wake up I stare at the ceiling, almost curious to see if the shapes reconstruct the same scene. And they do. When I gaze out of the window, I check if the horses are still there. And they are, although when I look now, what used to be images which could only ever be themselves can also be perceived as a ‘random arrangement of shapes’. Noticing that, my mind
immediately attempts to reconstruct them back into their pareidolic forms.
Although so much has changed since I left home, although I have changed, these images are lasting- even more than that, they constitute the artefacts of my childhood. I can’t return to the same home that I left, but I can come back to these moments of seeing. And I think it must be more than nostalgia for a want of a rose-tinted childish imagination: they are still there because they make up part of my world. They are perhaps the most concrete and lasting part of my past, in that they cannot be taken from me. When considering instances of pareidolia in one’s personal experience, to undermine the phenomenon as a mere illusion is reductive. It makes it seem like only, as I have called it, ‘a moment of seeing’, when really this illusion can last beyond its unmasking- it is more than just a moment. Seeing random patterns in things is another way in which we can understand how we navigate existence, how we are capable of seeing expression and life breathing in what we learn to know as emotionless and logical. There is more
life animating the objects we see every day than we would usually think, and pareidolia is a way of recognizing this, it is a way of comprehending the incomprehensible. Rather than moments of seeing, I think I understand this phenomenon as a moment of return, a moment of stability; a victory for the imagination which can exist in a liminal space where the concrete teases us with visions that speak of multiple worlds unknown.
[Natasha Cunningham – she/her – @tasher_the_smasher_1999]
[Photo credit: Irish Arts Review, featuring ‘Persona’ by Micheal Quane]