Pareidolia and Anthropomorphism

A pareidolic Virgin Mary. Photo John Hanley/Sun Media

A pareidolic Virgin Mary. Photo John Hanley/Sun Media

Christopher Moreau, a 47 year old Canadian man, recently noticed the tree growing in his yard presents the image of “the Virgin Mary.” According to the Sun Media article in the link, the tree:

has left dumbfounded residents wondering if their neighbourhood has been divinely blessed.

Some have even been brought to tears by the surreal Mary in the tree.

Interestingly enough, Moreau, who stated he is “not a wacko” also said, “why do I need to go to church? I feel that God has come to me.”

This is interesting because it shows a classic case of pareidolia, where the human brain perceives a human image that fulfills some sort of expectation or fills in a pattern of recognition. In most cases of pareidolia, the subject knows that its an illusion. Take, for instance, the shape of a dog or horse in a cloud, or a sad face on a clock (below).

A pareidolic sad clock face

A pareidolic sad clock face

However, when the effect is combined with already held, often deeply held, beliefs like religious beliefs, beliefs in elaborate conspiracies, or in alien visitations and UFOs, or other superstitions, pareidolic observations can justify, enhance or solidify the already held belief system.

What’s completely ignored is the fact that someone else, with a different set of beliefs or experiences, will see something quite different. Or, if that possibility is accepted, what they see is dismissed as invalid since there is a disagreement. Rather than accept the possibility of being wrong (or “wacko”), the believer will only see the pareidolic observation as a justification or validation of their own beliefs and superstitions. Billowing smoke and flames that form an image similar to a face become evidence of Satan; elongated, diamond shapes become Virgin Marys; scrolling marks become the word “allah;” and so on.

A bat? Bird? Frog? Pelvis?

A bat? Bird? Frog? Pelvis?

The effect is most clearly explained by considering the Rorschach inkblot test, in which blots of ink are
used by a trained therapist to obtain insight into a person’s thoughts by forcing them to project the thoughts onto the inkblot cards, revealing personality and emotional characteristics. Certainly, the validity and utility of Rorschach tests are worthy of inquiry and skepticism, but it’s enough to show that one’s emotional state and personality as well as one’s current thoughts -what’s prevalent on the mind- influences what is observed. In the blot to the right, someone might be convinced they see a bat, a frog, a person kneeling in prayer, or the pelvic region of a skeleton.

Similar to pareidolia is anthropomorphism.

This refers to the tendency of human beings to apply human characteristics or attributes to non-human objects (both natural and supernatural) and to creatures, beings or phenomena (both natural and supernatural).

Egyptian Jackal

Egyptian Jackal

History is replete with examples of this and one need only look at the archaeological records of Egypt or Mesoamerica to see good examples of crocodiles that are made to appear part human. Egyptians also used many other animals such as jackals to create gods and deities. Other examples of anthropomorphism include centaurs, minotaurs, and talking, walking trees of The Lord of the Rings. Most anthropomorphic examples that people experience on a day-to-day basis aren’t taken seriously and are clearly understood to be metaphoric or allegoric. Good examples include children’s television or cinema: Bugs Bunny, Arthur the aardvark, and the animals depicted in Over the Hedge for instance.

The Muffler Man

The Muffler Man

Another clear instance of anthropomorphism that isn’t taken literally are the “muffler men” that you see from time to time adorning muffler and car repair shops around the United States. It isn’t expected that these are real people or ever were. It makes a funny, but logical connection to the type of business being conducted at the shop. Arthur presents children’s issues in a manner that they find interesting, amusing and entertaining while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that people come in all sorts of flavors with regard to nationality, ethnicity and so on. In other words, people may look different, but they mostly have the same feelings, emotions, and motivations.

But there are instances in which humans anthropomorphize objects, animals, beings, phenomena and the like with the full expectation that the anthropomorphic characteristics are truly present. This nearly always is accompanied or because of some superstition or belief in the supernatural and, indeed, some of the beings, events, or phenomena that are anthropomorphized are completely supernatural themselves.

The depiction of Anubis as a part-jackal, part-man figure above never existed, but was believed to exist. Perhaps many Egyptians contemporary to the artist that created the image even believed they had seen Anubis in his jackal/human form. Native Americans, even today, refer to coyote as an anthropomorphic figure of mischief or detraction. The Navajo once believed (and many still do) that witches were able to assume the form of coyotes, wolves, or even birds to bring evil and ill will to their enemies. And supposedly civilized westerners who belong to certain religious cults believe that wafers contain the body and soul of a man believed to have been slain over 2,000 years ago. The see a crucifix as an anthropomorphic symbol of this man, many even pray to it directly and revere a crucifix as if the character, personality, and being of Jesus Christ were actually present in it.

But, to bring this post full circle, when I look at Moreau’s tree, my first impression was a robed figure from Harry Potter or some other sorcerer story.

Sorcerer in the Tree?

Sorcerer in the Tree?

Further Reading:

Guthrie, Stewart (1993). Faces in the Clouds: a New Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press

About Ylooshi

An anthropologist who is an atheist. My blog at breakingspells.net concerns itself with breaking the spells of superstition and religious belief through examining human superstitions and religions scientifically and rationally. Breaking Spells, the blog, also focuses on atheist and secular concerns such as the separation of church and state as well as the negative influences of Islamo-Judeo-Christian religious cults on society.
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