Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Auras, Ghosts, and Pareidolia

A direct link to the above video is at http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=qZkTVhzBgNk

Last blog, in "Elvis and the Electrons", we talked about a BBC science documentary which says there must be other versions of our universe where Elvis is still alive right now. But what about our own universe? I haven't checked the tabloid racks lately, but certainly in the three decades since his passing there have been countless reports of people seeing Elvis. Let's all agree for a moment that Elvis really did die back in '77 - the question, then, is what might have caused some of those people since then to think they saw Elvis?

This time around, I'd like to talk about the phenomenon of pareidolia. Here's the definition from wikipedia:

pareidolia describes a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.
Here's a short video showing Pareidolia-type images. This was created by "Caino" from Italy, who kindly gave me permission to use this video:

A direct link to this video is at http://www.metacafe.com/watch/1878026/pareidolia/

My friend Bob introduced me to this word when he sent me this link - http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4105, which talks more about the backwards recordings effect, where people can be convinced they are hearing messages that aren't really there. And over at Clifford Pickover's Reality Carnival, a quick search for "pareidolia" on that page reveals a number of tasty discussions.

Two Dots and a Line
Scott McCloud created one of my favorite books: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Presented in a comic book format, it does an excellent job of explaining the connection between simple graphics - how we human beings can look at two dots and a line in a circle and instantly recognize a face - and the layers of meaning that are communicated with different drawing styles. It also speaks to what our brains are hard-wired to do: look for meaning within the constant input coming into our brains.

Perceiving Patterns
Where is the dividing line, then, between pareidolia - sensing things that aren't really there - and the leaps of intuition that allow us to see things that are hidden from view? This is a very blurry line indeed. If any of us can look at a picture of a particular mountain or a particular piece of toast and very clearly see the face of Jesus, does saying "but that's not Jesus, it's just some coincidental shapes" make us stop from seeing the face? If we look at a piece of abstract art that conveys a particular emotion, was that emotion deliberately imparted by the artist or is it merely our brains that are adding those layers of meaning? And how is it that a piece of music can instantly be recognized as being sad or sprightly, angry or peaceful? In all of these cases there are connections across space and time that our brains plug into, which allow us to impart meaning to the input. Saying "that's just our brains interpreting a random pattern" really diminishes what is so amazing about our ability to interpret this huge amount of data that is coming in through our senses... and ultimately, if our universe is really just the result of random quantum fluctuations, then our ability to make sense of any part of our reality at all is a gigantic testament to the ability of our minds to tease out coherent and understandable patterns from the noise.

Have you ever seen an aura? Or a ghost?
One of the poll questions that recently finished here on the blog was about whether people have seen an "aura" - a visual representation of a person's energy field that surrounds their body. Another poll that will finish in a few weeks asks about ghosts - have you ever had an experience which led you to believe in ghosts, or spirits of the departed that carry on after death and somehow have contact with our world? In both of these polls, I was surprised to see how many of us have had personal experiences that confirm there is much more to our world then the blunt physical reality set out before us.

Making sense of the data, finding sense within the noise
And with this project, I have been trying to show that there are strong connections between theories of parallel universes and universal wavefunctions that connect our reality together, and theories that support the existence of extra dimensions (after all, it needs to be made clear that extra dimensions are not a prerequisite for all theories involving multiple universes). The intuitive way of visualizing our reality that I've come up with, I believe, has ways of tying those ideas together very strongly, and leaves room for those other more mysterious connections of spirit, memes, intuition, instinct, and the paranormal to be incorporated into our model of how reality really works.

Yes, sometimes a piece of toast is really just a piece of toast, a guy wearing Elvis sunglasses is really just some guy, and pareidolia imparts meaning that really isn't there at all. But whether you're talking about dark energy and the missing 96% of the universe, or theories of extra dimensions, or the personal experiences that people have that tell them ghosts, auras, and other paranormal events really do exist, we are dealing with things that are beyond the here and now, and extend out into realms that our simple spacetime is not able to hold. Hard line viewpoints that say all of these fanciful things like dark energy, extra dimensions, auras and ghosts don't exist, then, should be examined very carefully.

What's wrong with embracing a bit of the mystery? It makes all of us richer to expand our minds beyond the hard physical world that's in front of our noses and think about what it might be that lies beyond.

To finish, here's a song about how important our role as conscious observers is in the universe we are headed towards - the song is called "See No Future".

A direct link to this video is at http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=69pUzwSONBc

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

PS - Here's a related article from the November Scientific American "Mind" issue, written by Michael Schermer, on "Patternicity".

Next: The Top Ten Tenth Dimension Blogs, December Report

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