What if I said I saw a ghost today?
You would maybe laugh; certainly so when I clarified that the ghost had been just an odd fold in my blanket in a shadowy bedroom, resembling a sad human face.
That’s the problem with us humans — we’re prone to seeing familiar things. Most of us can read comics and watch cartoons, and immediately see characters with faces and facial expressions, despite the fact they might consist of just a few wavy black lines on a white background. It’s this same ability of ours to recognize faces that misfires as pareidolia, seeing faces where there are none. If Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Ted Rall’s squiggles look like human faces, it’s not at all surprising that sooner or later, by the sheer number of such things, a piece of burnt toast or a whorl in a wooden door have a shape our minds misread as a face.
Similarly, an overexcited (say scared) person might hear voices in the wind; learning to hear what you’re told (say “There be a tiger behind ye!”) is so important that we learn to be too good in it. Likewise, there is a neat trick where a video of people singing is given subtitles: weird nonsense, just random words strung together, but if you look at the words and listen, the people seem to be singing just that! They actually sing some obscure hymn; but once our brains get a suggestion of what they might be saying, we tend to hear just that.
The same tendency caused considerable distress to many elderly matrons in bygone days — once you heard the rumour that some weird growly part of your son’s favorite rock song, once played backwards, was a sneering cry of “All hail Satan!”, you could pretty easily hear it as just that. I think there’s some experiment which shows that once you tell a person what the supposed hidden message in a noise is, that message tends to be heard in there, whether it’s there or not.
So the next time someone comes to you, saying that after three weeks of fasting and self-denial, and constant praying and thinking of only Jesus, he saw him in the shifting shadows of the wood outside — well, quite unlikely someone should come to you saying just that, but should something similar happen you should remember that humans are very good in seeing what they expect to see.
Just remember the Welsh fellow who phoned the police, telling there was, out in the night, a weird light floating up high, surely one of those UFO thingamajics one hears about on television, again and again — and the police, arriving, were relieved and a bit embarrased to see he was, literally, just barking at the moon.
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Ah, this is just one of those things I think about now and then, and even if I am not the best expositor on the subject, this little thing needs to be kept in mind. Otherwise, the Miracle of the Sun, ka-blam!
When it comes to pareidolia and things like that, you shouldn’t trust a callow mathematician like me; go worship at the temple of the luminous Philplait, the Death from the Skies, instead.
I think I saw the reworded hymn video over at Plait’s blog, but, silly me, I can’t find it anymore, and I can’t stomach going through all of his “12 bazillion blog articles” (he says so, on his own sidebar!).
Edit: And of course I didn’t found the hymn vid at Plait’s because I’d seen it over at Aardvarchaeology. Curses and confustications!