OMG, It’s Jesus!

It seems as if one variation or another of an attention-getting episode occurs at least once year: Part of an oil stain on a garage floor bears a resemblance to Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and a pilgrimage of disciples grows large enough to warrant coverage on local TV. The Holiest of Holies have a habit of popping up here and there, whether in a tangle of tree limbs, in the grain of wooden boards, on crusty loaves of bread, and (most famously, perhaps) on fresh-from-the-pan tortillas.

Who knew this phenomenon has a name? Well, enough people for the word to have worked its way into Google and the random dictionary. It surfaced in the 1950s, and it’s hardly surprising that its usage shot up in the new century.

And this soon-to-be-familiar (?) neologism is …

pareidolia (n.)  the erroneous perception of patterns or meaning in anything vague, ambiguous, or random

Pronounced pa-ree-DOHL-ee-uh, the coinage is a blend of the prefix para- (in its sense of “faulty, abnormal”) and eidolon (“unsubstantiated image”; ”phantom”). It applies not only to the visual but to the aural; baby boomers will remember the rumor that if certain Beatles songs were played backwards one could hear “Paul is dead” now and again. Nevertheless, pareidolic incidents are more frequently perceived by the eye rather than the ear.

In “The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars” chapter of his 1995 bestseller The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that wherever we seek out a pattern, we find one. When Europeans looked at the moon they saw a face; Greeks saw a goddess weaving laurel strands, South Americans a four-eyed jaguar, and Polynesians a woman beating tapa cloth. Sagan also explained the role our response to faces played in the evolution of our species:

As soon as [an] infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of the parents, and less likely to prosper.

A pareidolic vision isn’t limited to faces, of course: Portions of mottlings on flat surfaces or billows or massings of any sort may be seen to represent anything from full-bodied human beings to birds to monsters worthy of Maurice Sendak. Some may ask whether coincidence or (intelligent?) design is at play. Whatever their origins, these accidental effigies may be due a modicum of respect now that they rate a word of their own.

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