When is a ghost not a ghost?

2 Oct

Just had my attention drawn to this creepy-looking picture via a Facebook contact:


(click for link)

Striking? Very.

Dramatic? Undeniably.

Ghost? Umm… not so much.

Welcome to the world of Pareidolia. Big word, simple concept. Put at its simplest, the human brain is ‘wired’ to make sense out of random patterns. It’s a sort of wishful thinking, really. Popular culture abounds with tales of hidden, often Satanic, messages revealed when various songs are played backwards; while many of these have been deliberately engineered via the technique of backmasking, many others are down to our old friend pareidolia.

However by far the most common manifestation of the phenomenon involves vision. The simplest pattern that humans are programmed to recognise is a human face. Look at some patterned wallpaper, or flames, or even nice fluffy clouds. I guarantee it won’t be many minutes before you start to find faces looking back at you; you’ll probably even recognise a few of them. In fact, just scribble down a couple of lines and geometric shapes, et voilà

… the face that launched a gazillion t-shirt sales (sort of).

It’s even easier when looking at a still photo, which by its very nature is a frozen moment of time captured in a form that can be examined at a depth far greater than would be possible in the field. That “Nazgûl” pictured above for example:

Mum-of-three Sue, from Ramsey, near Huntingdon, Cambs., said: ”We didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when we were at the waterfall and we even sat there for a cup of coffee.

”But when we got home and saw the dark figure of a hooded man we were just astonished.

Forget the static image you see in the picture; imagine standing at the scene and seeing that waterfall moving. It doesn’t take a genius to see that nothing out of the ordinary was noticed because there was nothing out of the ordinary to notice. But the human brain is a credulous beast – once it gets an idea of spooky goings-on into its head, there’s no shifting it. Also, it helps if someone points out for you what you’re supposed to see in the picture. It’s not enough to be presented with the picture and asked what you think it looks like; no, there’s always some helpful idiot to program your perception for you: “Hey, doesn’t that look just like one of those Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings to you?”

Yeah, thanks for that, it does now.

But we have much to thank pareidolia for (may not be SFW). After all, the world would much poorer without that old classic Mother Teresa simulacrum, the NunBun:


or Kitler:


or my all-time favourite, the Keyhole Nebula:


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