or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 26, 2008


After writing this, I realized I'd used the word "literally" a lot. Here's an amusing blog I just discovered that catalogues uses of the word "literally" in various media and categorizes each according to whether it's been used correctly or not. Truly, a blogger after my own heart.


You've probably seen that picture of the person on Mars, right?

It does look like a person. In fact, my first thought was that it looked disconcertingly like that famous picture of Sasquatch:

The person on Mars isn't--and I would have thought this would be obvious--a person. It's a figment, an accident of rock formation and light, the perfect example of a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.

"Para-" is a Greek prefix that acts like a preposition with a host of meanings. Probably the most common in English is "alongside" or "beside", as in "parallel", "beside one another", and "paragraph", literally "to write beside", because paragraphing originally meant the marking of passages in a common dialogue to show which speaker was to read which part. Another, clearly related meaning is "past" or "beyond", as in "paradox", literally "beyond belief"; from this sense of "para-" sprang another, more distantly related meaning, "beyond what is usual", which is to say "abnormal", as in "paranoia", a form of madness, literally "disordered mind" (from Greek "noos", "mind").

"Eidolon" is the Greek word for "image" or "icon", something to which you'd pray; if you say it aloud you can hear the word "idol" in it, because that's where English "idol" comes from.

Pareidolia, therefore, is the seeing of an abnormal image--one that isn't actually there.

It doesn't take much thought to realize two things. First, examples of pareidolia are all around us, all the time: we see shapes in the clouds, we fearfully assume the presence of a person from a pile of clothing in a nighttime room, the religiously inclined see the Virgin Mary in a water stain on a window of the woodgrain pattern of a door. Second, pareidolia is a useful evolutionary trait, a survival skill: better to guess there's a sabre-tooth tiger where there's only a bush than to assume it's a bush and get eaten by a tiger. Furthermore, we're genetically programmed to recognize faces, to the point that we see them everywhere--we impose human faces on every kind of natural phenomenon, from clouds

to mountains

to Mars.

If this, nothing more than two dots and a curve, looks like a face to us

then practically anything can.


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