Pareidolia Skepticism/critical thinking

The Virgin Mary appears

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts, most of which are more than a year old.) These posts will be interspersed with occasional fresh material. This post originally appeared on April 22, 2005.

Unfortunately, Blogger was down for “scheduled maintenance” last night in my prime blogging time, meaning I couldn’t access the drafts couple of posts inspired by my recent trip to AACR and finish one of them. By the time Blogger was back up, it was too late to let me finish one of them in a manner that would meet Orac’s usual standards. Fortunately, I had started this on the plane on the way home, meaning I had a copy of it in Word, not Blogger. All I had to do is to add the links, clean it up, and I was good to go.

I’ve been made aware of a rather interesting apparition that has appeared in my favorite city (and here and here), Chicago, not too far from where I used to live. On a freeway underpass for the Kennedy Expressway at W. Fullerton Avenue, there is a stain that has appeared, a stain that is said to bear an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary (more is here and a slideshow is here). Given that I know exactly which underpass this is, having driven by there many times during my three year sojourn in Chicago, I just had to check the story out, even though its entry into the blogosphere is a few days old. Better late than never, I guess (not to mention that, just because several other bloggers have already commented on this story never stopped me from adding my two cents).

Checking out pictures of the supposed apparition, I have a hard time seeing that much of a resemblance. Certainly, not having ever heard of it before or seen it before, I probably wouldn’t have looked at that stain and said to myself, “Gee, that looks like the Virgin Mary.” (Other things come to mind, unfortunately, which probably says more about me than I’d like to admit.) However, now that the suggestion has been planted by all the stories on the “apparition,” I can see a resemblance. But I have to mention that others have pointed out equally plausible things that the stain looks like, one of them quite artistic and another of them quite rock ‘n’ roll. This particular apparition reminds me of one that happened a few years ago that got a fair amount of play in the media. In the fall of 2000, hundreds flocked to a house in Perth Amboy, NJ, in which a second floor window appeared to show an image of the Virgin Mary. This image, unfortunately, disappeared when the window was cleaned, but that didn’t bother the owner of the house, who said, “Cleaning the window didn’t remove her. She left when she was ready to leave.” Another example is Our Lady of Watsonville, in which an image of the Virgin Mary was reportedly seen in a tree, and a more recent example occurred at a Boston hospital in 2003.

Clearly, as Skeptico points out, this is yet another instance of pareidolia, the tendency of people to see distinct objects in response to a vague stimulus. Pareidolia is usually the explanation for these phenomenon, and psychologists even try to harness this psychological tendency to see distinct objects in vague stimuli as a psychological test, the Rorschach ink blot test (although the validity of this test has been questioned). Having grown up Catholic myself, I never quite understood why Catholics as a religion seem to be particularly susceptible to paredolia, especially to seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in stains, windows, and other objects (although I have seen an amusing story of one who saw a vision of Lenin in his shower, which tells me that anyone can be susceptible to this experience). It seems that, all too often, all it takes is one imaginative person who “sees” the Virgin Mary or Jesus or what-have-you in a window, who then tells others. Add the power of suggestion plus religion and suddenly everybody is seeing the vision!

Not even all religious people think that much of them. For example:

Does it matter? Does it matter what people see, or what they think they see?

The Rev. Al Boyce of the First Unitarian Society on Plainfield doesn’t think so.

“I do believe that we are body, soul and spirit, and spirituality is a part of our lives,” he said. “But I do not take much stock in apparitions and this type of thing. If someone imagines or sees something through their mind’s eye, that’s fine with me. . . But if we would only live like Jesus lived instead of looking at images of him, we would be far better off.”

Indeed we probably would. However, whatever the source of these “visions,” they must be recognized for what they are, not for what we wish they were.

Personally, I consider these “visions” to be no different than looking at the clouds and seeing different objects in them. I myself have seen clouds that have borne resemblances to faces, animals, trees, and a variety of other objects. Sometimes, if I let my imagination go a bit, I can even convince myself that the resemblance is quite uncanny. And, yes, I’ve even seen clouds that have on occasion reminded me of the face of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. These “visions” are no different. They would be nothing more than fun diversions if they didn’t have the potential to cause so much trouble when used to convince people that it’s a “sign from God.” Of course, these “signs from God” can then used as a tool for control, a means to convince people that the “sign” means whatever the leader wants to tell them it means. That’s one big reason to be skeptical of them, particularly the religious-based ones. Another is that they are often used to “prove” the existence of ghosts, UFOs, the Face on Mars, etc., in the absence of hard evidence.

The bottom line is that we have to understand the psychological tendency to see concrete objects in response to vague shapes and not let it serve as “proof” of anything. It can be fun to let your imagination wander and see what sorts of objects you can “see” in stains, clouds, condensation on windows, or whatever, but don’t accept such “visions” as “proof” of anything.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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