Wall Eye Dolia

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 1 2013 10:30 AM

Wall Eye Dolia

I love pareidolia, the psychological effect where we see faces in otherwise random or meaningless patterns. You know: It’s when people see the face of Jesus in wood grain or the Virgin Mary in a reflection. It’s also when you see birds or dragons or faces in clouds—any time this happens.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

It’s usually just a fun thing, but sometimes it can be pretty startling. The other day I walked into my bathroom and was freaked out for a moment when I saw the luminous apparition of a woman leering at me:

pareidolia
Here's looking at you, kid.

Photo by Phil Plait

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Seriously, for a split second this got a good reaction from me. The nerve impulses from my eyes triggered the lizard part of my brain, which has way faster reflexes than the higher elitist functions of my cerebrum.

After all, it really looks like a pair of eyes and a mouth with a slightly whimsical cant. The tilt and shape of the eyes struck me as feminine, too. All together, it’s quite a strong pareidolically shaped circumstance.

Once I saw what it really was, I immediately wondered what the source was. The flat mirror you can see on the table in the picture was clearly involved in this, but what were the light sources? The lights over my sink were on, but a quick experiment in eclipsing them didn’t affect the saucy woman’s expression one bit. Then the scientist part of my brain kicked in: I looked at the angles, did a little back tracking, and it became clear that the culprits were the recessed can lights in the bathroom ceiling.

pareidolia
Ah, now I see the light.

Photo by Phil Plait

gatsby_cover
Judging pareidolia by its cover.

Photo by USC/via Smithsonian

I held the camera near the mirror, pointed toward them, to take that shot. As you can see, the arrangement is the same, and again a quick experiment blocking them showed clearly they were the source of this photonic face.

My wife and I got a good chuckle out of this, and never ones not to share the science, we called for our daughter to come see. She took one look and laughed, and then exclaimed, “It looks like the cover of The Great Gatsby!” She had just read the book, and I have to admit, she’s right.

I don’t think there is any great and profound insight to be had from this resemblance; it’s just coincidence. Perhaps people more prone to faith are more likely to glean messages from these circumstances. I strongly suspect that’s why pareidolia so commonly leads to witnessing religious icons.

But I can’t know this for sure. As Gatsby himself said, after all, “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”

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