Tuesday, 10 April 2012

pareidolia - a word for a common human activity

Last week I was looking at pictures taken by my photography class, and one person showed a shot of some rocks in a pond. The rocks looked like frogs, and we talked about whether we like to 'name' natural features by how they look to us. Some like it, some don't.

I don't find that walking around a beautiful natural place and classifying everything by some arbitrary human-based attribute is a useful exercise, probably because I often can't see what I'm 'supposed' to see. I've sometimes thought this naming of geographical features is like our anthropomorphising of animals.

The Macquarie Dictionary says of anthropomorphise:
(say anthruhpuh'mawfuyz)
verb (anthropomorphised, anthropomorphising)
–verb (t) 1. to ascribe human form or attributes to.
–verb (i) 2. to ascribe human form or attributes to an animal, a god, etc. Also, anthropomorphize.
So I guess if I say a rock looks like a frog, I could be anthropomorphising. But I must confess that this word didn't really describe the phenomenon for me.

But now I've learned a new word, from Slavenka's blog - pareidolia - which she defines as 'a psychological phenomenon where human brains see familiar objects in random shapes'.

In looking for the word on the internet I came across a Flickr site devoted to pareidolia, and so far my favorite is this one.

There's a similar Flickr site devoted to random shapes that look like faces. Here are some:


proud womon said...

oooh i love the word... and i understand about not seeing what you're 'supposed' to - neither do i see what others say they do, abstract art being just one example... guess that comes down to individual perception - one person's 'flickr face' might just be another person's 'cupboard'!!

parlance said...

proud womon, I guess the primitive part of our brain is wired to make sense of shapes around us, in particular things that might signal danger. It sure is a good word. Whenever I post words here, I'm convinced I'm going to remember them, but I rarely do. The one I keep trying to recall is the one that's even better than 'procrastinate', because it means putting something off until the day AFTER tomorrow.

Hsin-Yi said...

Hey Parlance - I finally got a chance to come over & check out your own blog! :-)

Interesting discussion - I guess it's a bit like when people see shapes & things in clouds...I think people do like to try and find human features in things. Isn't an extreme form those "miracles" where people claim to see the face of Jesus in a slice of toast or something?? :-)

Personally, I hate the way people tend to anthropomorphise - especially dogs! It does them so much more harm than we realised - and I also think it points to how egocentric we are as humans that we feel the need to give human emotions, values & attitudes to everything around us. What's wrong with accepting that dogs think like a dog and are completeley different from us? Doesn't make them "lesser" creatures just because they don't have the same priorities or values (or hang-ups!) that we do! ;-)

parlance said...

Hsin-Yi, I agree about the damage we do other animals by measuring them against what we value in the human animal.
One example is our much-vaunted 'intelligence'. I've listened to a couple of programs on Radio National suggesting 'intelligence' is not actually a valuable characteristic in a species. I don't know any other species on the road to ruining the entire planet.