Sunday, August 11, 2013

Things that don't even look like other things

During my career as a Ghostbuster (Ghostdebunker doesn't have the same nostalgic ring to it), I was regularly disappointed by how easily people would latch onto the flimsiest photographic 'evidence' that seemed to substantiate their belief that our dead ancestors forge dents in metal fireplaces in the background of photos designed to reflect a camera flash from a certain vantage point to vaguely resemble a stretched, out of proportion face, usually missing a couple of key features, but it's the best they could do. Come on, they're dead! Cut them some slack.

Sometimes we might think we see a face in tree bark, an angel in a cloud or Jesus Christ on a dog's arse (that photo sums up the pareidolia phenomenon better than any dissertation could), but what's really happening is the part of our brains that learns to recognise our mothers' faces soon after birth as a self-preservation measure is over-compensating and interpreting random stimuli as familiar objects - faces in particular, or your preferred brand of supernatural icon. It doesn't even have to be very accurate to be perceived as a face, as the seemingly universal recognition of a colon paired with a bracket or other grammatically irrelevant punctuation to express generic emotions attests. N.B. For those who haven't read a couple of Robert Winston books and now think they're bloody psychologists, he means this: :)

This glitch happens more often when the brain is tired or in poor lighting conditions, making late-night paranormal investigation vigils the perfect pareidolia breeding ground. I won't even get into the 'investigators' who deliberately use faulty sound recording equipment because it produces 'better results' than more accurate recorders that don't make a slight breeze passing the microphone sound like Linda Blair violently vomiting green slime in The Exorcist. And don't get me started on 'orb' photos (HOW ARE YOU NOT AWARE OF DUST?)

I'm not on a mission to destroy fun. Pareidolia is at the enjoyable and light-hearted end of the mental illness spectrum and I appreciate it for what it is. I found stories of ghostly apparitions and faces in the floor fascinating when I was a kid, but we're not kids any more - so when you're tired and think a tree looks sort of like a monk, by all means take a photograph, post it to your blog and consider sending it to Richard Wiseman, but don't make more of it than it is and don't insist it looks like a thing when it doesn't even look like a thing.

My mostly lousy pareidolia anthology

Here's the reverse view of the opening Queen's Head rock at Yehliu, Taiwan. Her majesty isn't looking so ravishing any more. It's like when the Royal Mint introduced those new coins in 1998

A less famous Yehliu rock that I thought looked like a rabbit facing right, if the ears were in completely the wrong position and the eyes made cartoonishly large. It might have had something to do with me reading Watership Down at the time, but even three years later I can't un-see it

Final one from Yehliu, this reminded me of the bird doors in Super Mario Bros 2, but with a human-ish nose rather than a beak. I didn't try to go inside. I am not mad

'Grandfather' (Hin Ta) rock on Koh Samui, Thailand. You know what it looks like - the ball(s?) and flabby man breasts in front do unfortunately create the image in my mind of an old, horny foreigner heading to Thailand to buy what he can't get fair and square because he's an awful human being

Less well-known than the Grandfather rock is this other phallic-tastic member close by. The plant pubes are the icing on the cock. There's a Grandmother rock nearby too, but I wasn't allowed to see it because of the high tide. I guess she was excited to see me.

The proximity of these limestone organs makes Koh Samui the most impressive stop on my pareidolia tour. It's so good, I have to wonder if there's been any subtle sculpting over the years to help things along

I was taken aback when I thought I saw a half-plant/half-fireman in Chiang Mai. It might not look impressive here, but it's the only time I've actually had to stop in my tracks and check there wasn't a person there

Chicken Island in Krabi, a rare example of a Thaisland actually looking anything like the animal it's named after (Koh Tao doesn't look like a turtle, Koh Chang doesn't look like an elephant). You'll never see this island from any other angle because it only works from this one, but at least it works. Except I think they mean turkey, don't they?

This 'bear tree' at Kellie's Castle in Ipoh, Malaysia is better than I gave it credit for at the time. Maybe I read too many accounts of ghost kids and other paranormal activity at the manor and sought refuge in a closed mind

Colonial-era Baclayon Church in Bohol, Philippines apparently features a bearded face (it's not necessarily Him; other people had beards too) when viewed from this angle. I don't know which part, what exactly I was looking for or whether the illusion works in post-typhoon gloom, but I adjusted the brightness on Photoshop (which is presumably what the LORD intended), and I still can't see shit.

Maybe you need to believe first in order to see? The number of times I've genuinely been told that

It looks like someone's lazily attempted to restore this literally defaced lion guarding Angkor Wat by etching some rudimentary human facial features

A less pornographic grandmother rock in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, South Korea. Doesn't really look like anything. "Oh come on, you can sort of see a person." Really? Can you? "Well, if you--" CAN YOU? "No Dave. You are best and magic doesn't exist." That's better

A sign told me there was a face (or maybe faces) in these rocks by Cheonjiyeon Waterfall. I couldn't see it, and inspecting the photo later I still couldn't see it. Now I'm writing this I can see quite a few dark recesses and protrusions that could be interpreted as facial features, but then I am a bit tired - perfect!

But the Turtle Rock in Manjanggul Lava Tube still looks nothing like a turtle. Rock, yes

I didn't follow everything the guide was saying in Thiên Cung Cave, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, but there was apparently pareidolia everywhere, all of it tenuously linked to animals and creatures from Vietnamese folklore. I presume that's a dragon in the top-right, but I'm being led by strategic lighting so it's not really fair

I don't know what kind of spider wove these impressive webs in Bagan, Myanmar, but the debris inside looked to me entertainingly/terrifyingly like a withered human reaching futilely for help that never arrived. Ha ha... I, um, hope it isn't

Not a very good example from Morton National Park, Southern Highlands, Australia. I was aware at the time that this robed figure on the left (missing most of their body) was probably a result of tiredness, but the initial impression has stuck with me... actually, it's just struck me that they could be petrified Langoliers

On the left I still see a Klan member and his turgid member. With all five limbs accounted for, the mind can easily ignore bad proportions and anomalies like one arm splitting into three

Tormented soul stuck in a tree in Berowra, Sydney. Poor sod

This is the most curious one I've come across myself, in Mount Victoria, Blue Mountains. It looks sort of artificial, but why would anyone construct that? To scare me?

I can't find any other mentions or pictures of it online - it's not just me that's seeing this, right? Are you just wondering, 'why has Dave taken a photo of an empty green plain?'

Pulpit Rock, Blackheath. I thought it looked a bit like a turtle (head lower right).
I now realise everything looks like a turtle, except that Korean one

Quite a few people claim to have seen faces on this temple. I don't see it though.

Two drum beats followed by a cymbal crash.
A cough echoes through the auditorium.
One pair of hands claps slowly.

What things that aren't things have you thought looked like those things (but actually they don't)? I'll get the hang of this interactive blogging one day.

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