Seeing recognisable objects in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia. It's a form of apophenia, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek images or patterns in random information. You must have experienced this phenomena lots of times, seeing faces in an old tree or just mistaking something for something else because you have only a partial sight of it.
I have been thinking more and more about this recently and rather than it being just an odd fact about what could be read as a weaknesses in our perceptual apparatus, I begin to wonder if as a neurological mechanism it is central to our survival and in some ways allows us to be immersed into the world in a far deeper way than we have realised.
Apophenia and pareidolia are argued by certain theorists to be the result of natural selection. If so it would be the result of favouring people most able to quickly identify something out in the world that was either favourable or threatening to them. To do things at speeds beyond the normal ability of humans to process information, means to operate sub-cortically or subconsciously, before information is passed on to the rest of the brain for processing and decision making. This ability, is also thought to be something possessed by other animals. Interestingly pareidolia is not confined to animals. Scientists have for years taught computers to use visual clues to "see" faces and other images and these recognition systems are also prone to mistakes or the seeing of something in a situation where in reality it isn't there. (Rosen, 2012)
It has been argued for over 2,000 years (Fotinis, 1980, p. 417) that a sensible life is not exclusively a human trait, and that sensation gives form to reality. Coccia (2016, p.3) also points out that images are central to the existence of the sensible. Coccia goes on to explore an idea of what he calls, 'an anthropology of the sensible' (ibid p.5) which is the study of how the image and the sensible together give active life to human beings. The world of the sensible, or sensible life is made up of images. These are the sounds we hear, the touch sensations we feel, the light that we see, but they are not things in themselves or 'the real'. The world itself is not sensible, it only becomes sensible 'outside of itself' . (Ibid, p.11) However the sensible also does not coincide with the perceiving being. It sits therefore in the gap between 'reality' and 'phenomenon', or as Aristotle puts it, an intermediary place between us and objects, a space in which the object becomes sensible. (Philoponus, p. viii) On Aristotle On the Soul 2.7-12. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
It is in the space between 'reality' and 'perceived perceptions' that the image gives shape to those perceptions so that they can be perceived. They need to take a form that is both recognisable by the perceiver and sensible of the reality from which they are derived. Their becoming is seeded in reality, and in this shaping, images are formed that are recognisable by the perceiver. It is these images that a human or animal body reacts to and because they are images they are 'open to interpretation' and this interpretation will always be dependent on the proclivities and cultural matrix from within which any animal has emerged. Because these are images, by definition they will also have a certain format, one which gives a shape to the image and prevents it becoming simply 'noise' or unreadable perceptual information.
This is where I believe pareidolia and apophenia come in. The process of interpretation has to often be done very quickly, in order for good fight or flight decisions to be made. A guess based on intuition being better because of speed, than a logical answer based on reasoning. Because the sensible is based on images the image recognition aspects of perception need to be key in the decoding process, and a range of possible choices can be built out of similarities in image construction. I.e. we are programmed to look for images before we become aware of anything else.
I have been thinking about my maternal grandmother again recently. She lived in a village and I used to stay with my grandparents for weeks on end when I was very young. She was the woman you went to when you needed your tealeaves read, and I spent many a fascinated hour listening to her read people's fortunes in the various cups and saucers that she used to develop her art. I have therefore decided that I would like to retrace her route into prophesy and have begun to find out as much as I can about tea leaf reading, beginning by moving away from tea in tea bags and now only drinking cups made from lose tea.
I have begun to research how it was done and the general principles reminded me of the principles behind the work of the artist Cozens. This quote from 'TEA-CUP READING AND FORTUNE-TELLING BY TEA LEAVES' by A Highland Seer, sums up the concept.
'GENERAL PRINCIPLES TO BE OBSERVED IN READING THE CUP
The interior of the tea-cup when it is ready to be consulted will exhibit the leaves scattered apparently in a fortuitous and accidental manner, but really in accordance with the muscular action of the left arm as controlled by the mind at whose bidding it has worked. These scattered leaves will form lines and circles of dots or small leaves and dust combined with stems, and groups of leaves in larger or smaller patches: apparently in meaningless confusion.
Careful notice should now be taken of all the shapes and figures formed inside the cup. These should be viewed front different positions, so that their meaning becomes clear. It is not very easy at first to see what the shapes really are, but after looking at them carefully they become plainer. The different shapes and figures in the cup must be taken together in a general reading. Bad indications will be balanced by good ones; some good ones will be strengthened by others, and so on.
It is now the business of the seer—whether the consultant or some adept to whom he has handed the cup to be read—to find some fairly close resemblance between the groups formed by the leaves and various natural or artificial objects. This part of the performance resembles the looking for 'pictures in the fire' as practised by children in nurseries and school-rooms and occasionally by people of a larger growth. Actual representations of such things as trees, animals, birds, anchors, crowns, coffins, flowers, and so forth may by the exercise of the powers of observation and imagination be discerned, as well as squares, triangles, and crosses. Each of these possesses, as a symbol, some fortunate or unfortunate signification.'
Later on we find a comprehensive list of things that we might 'see' in the tealeaves. This is a selection from 'A'.
ACORN, improvement in health, continued health, strength, and good fortune.
AIRCRAFT, unsuccessful projects.
ANCHOR, a lucky sign; success in business and constancy in love; if cloudy, the reverse must be read.
ANGEL, good news, especially good fortune in love.
APES, secret enemies.
APPLES, long life; gain by commerce.
APPLE-TREE, change for the better.
ARCH, a journey abroad.
ARROW, a disagreeable letter from the direction in which it comes.
ASS, misfortune overcome by patience; or a legacy.
AXE, difficulties overcome.
BADGER, long life and prosperity as a bachelor.
BASKET, an addition to the family.
BAT, fruitless journeys or tasks.
I was very taken with the illustrations of 'random events'; the cup, still possessing its handle and an indication of its circular base, is elevated to a cosmic circle, the tea leaves could be galaxies as read by a God.
This search for images with meaning appears to be vital to the way we deal with perception. It is also used in psychology as a test to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning.
The Rorschach test uses inkblots to obtain information from subjects as to their responses to something that is designed to be 'suggestive' of many possibilities. It has been employed to detect underlying thought disorders especially in cases where patients are reluctant to describe their thinking processes openly. It being basically a psychometric examination of pareidolia.
I think we have an interesting power reversal here. My grandmother who was not a professional, used her skills in seeing things in random patterns to help guide people through life, whilst the psychologist, a professional, looks at how others see things in random patterns in order to diagnose their problems. I am much more inclined to follow by grandmother's example and so have begun to include an element of collaborative storytelling in the artwork I am making.
Coccia, E. (2016)
Fotinis, A.P.(1980) The De Anima of Alexander of Aphrodiasias: A Translation and Commentary. Lanham: University press of America
Rosen, R. J. (2012) Pareidolia: A Bizarre Bug of the Human Mind Emerges in Computers The Atlantic. August 7
Philoponus, (2014) Aristotle: On the Soul London: Bloomsbury Publishing