Pareidolia: The Face of Things Unseen

The Aeon
The Aeon, Thoth pack

It is no longer enough these days to be book or even computer literate. To really understand the enigma the world presents to us, we must also be able to read symbols, some of them incomprehensible to the rational mind. We are compelled to open up to subtle messages emanating from signs and synchronicities that at first seem random, disconnected, fragmented or just plain silly. To develop this intuitive understanding of symbol and signs allows us to penetrate the veil of nature. Symbol reading- or divination- takes multiple forms, some clear cut, but others less obvious as to their practical purpose.

The long list of types of divination from oneiromancy (dream reading) to batraquomancy (frog reading) is fascinating, but also somewhat ridiculous as the message could be literally anything at all. The resurgence of interest in the Tarot is timely however. To some they are portals of wisdom, to others just an antiquated superstition. Yet, knowing what each of the Tarot cards actually means and how could its casual placement in front of us can be  significant to our lives might be the way forward.  Divination is exactly that – access to the divine. But how is it ever possible to read someone’s fate in a pile of goat entrails or the splattered black tea leaves in a cup? This is where it becomes more like pattern recognition and completion- something the brain is hard wired to do naturally in all of us, rendering meaning where previously there was none. People are even hard-wired impose narrative structure on life’s ‘one-damned-thing-after-another’ type events. Without imposing this structure the world would still appear disconnected, and we would be unable to make any sense of it. Whether the structure is internal or external is the real question.

Tragic Conversion of Dali by Glenn Brown
Tragic Conversion of Dali by Glenn Brown

Take this example: Twenty years ago I was working with a man who was a disaffected Catholic priest. He was a convert to Islam and the mistrust that triggered led to many questions from his colleagues, as to what had led to his rejection of Catholicism. He revealed that he’d been studying the Koran and admired the simplicity of Islamic faith compared to the corruption of the Catholic church.  One day he was at a crisis point, depressed and confused. He  walked outside and looked up at he sky. He saw writ large in the fulminating cloud arrangement, a highly dramatic image that, he said, looked like a monstrous apocalypse, or a convoluted painting by Salvador Dali, but pointing to his path. This vision had struck him to the core and his inner struggle eased into beatitude. He knew instantly it was a sign of what to do.

Picking it apart we might also ask: so now Allah is influenced by Dali? We now know the famous ‘end of times’ or of the ‘world’ in the Bible was really mistranslated as the end of the ‘aeon’ -pointing to the the precession of the equinoxes, the Mayan calendar, and to Astrotheology, and not to any one-off apocalypse. So his vision like many others was liable to erroneous interpretation. Others might have said it was just a bunch of clouds; that he  himself had influenced the interpretation; and there is no persuading someone whose mind is already convinced. But to him it was the certainty he needed and that is the point- it is what we think of a given experience that renders its meaning. It does not have to be proven as an external fact in order to be real.

But other phenomena where signs just appear not in clouds but in everyday objects are well documented. Many Muslims have claimed that the word Allah is written in Arabic in rocks, on a grain a rice, in waves, on human skin, and they claim it is a personal message validating their world view. Strange it never appears on pig skin. But it is no different from seeing the (apparently Caucasian) face of Jesus on a piece of toast or a face on the surface of Mars. Strange too that Jesus never appears to a Muslim, or the word Allah to a Hindu.

Is there a Face on Mars?

My question is: Could it be that we just see what we want to see, but are afraid to take ownership of that subtle psycho-spiritual process? It is not so easy to pin down. This is not to dismiss seeing wonderful things in the unseen shape of things, but to actually acknowledge and celebrate their relevance.  In a high-tech industrialised world people have become cut off from themselves and need a few hints about how to reconnect. Shamans have often been the link between the numinous and concrete worlds; rituals, music, dreams, poetry, visions, songs and mysterious incidents or coincidences are all bridges to that other world. Artists too; I have often admired the skill of the artists to see things where others cannot. Theirs is a more aesthetic interpretation which gives them mastery. It is another form of reclaiming and reinventing the world. If we are artists we perhaps see more elegant shapes, or intimations of aesthetic potential in rocks and stones, trees and of course the sky, but also in rubbish tips, abandoned items, ditches, and dark decaying matter.

Symbol and sign reading is a way of enhancing your intuitive powers, and this skill ought to be given more attention- perhaps even taught in schools. The symbolic interpretation of apparently random shapes and objects might strike us as anti-rational. There is the great god of coincidence to worship instead- or so we are given to believe. That seems more scientific, all of which lends support to the strongly held belief (yes, it is just that) that life is random and has no meaning, that the soul is not embodied in the universe, that it is not living but inanimate matter. Go with this if you like, but consider that this very belief could be blocking  your intuition and guidance. It is also why modern people feel largely cut off from their immediate environments and turn to drugs to sedate the anxiety that arises from it, making the pharmaceutical industry very happy to reap the profits.

Clear this belief away and the world becomes alive just as Shamans have always known. The portals begin slowly to open and what it out there is no longer separate from us, but an intimate part of our psyches. Einstein himself said matter is really energy – vibrating in waves that are largely unseen to the human eye.  If so, our brains are swimming in an invisible soup. New scientific thinking from quantum physics proposes that a non-local, non-causal motif of patterning of events is at work underneath clustering type of feelings into waves like the murmuration of  birds. It behaves very strangely, giving further evidence that parapsychological phenomena may be possible. This could also explain why the throwing of coins and sticks in the I Ching works? As Sid Barrett of Pink Floyd enshrined in song: “A movement is accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return.” it taps into the universe’s mathematical cycles of change. By opening up to these broader ideas, our world becomes vastly enhanced, even miraculous.

I Ching
I Ching

Every time I go to yoga class the mat becomes wet and the shapes the droplets form create faces and these characters, personalities, portraits can become very real, even distracting. So what is happening? Can something be there, but not really there? According to Schrodinger’s cat experiment, the cat was there but not there at the same time – both dead and alive- a very disturbing fact of the quantum universe.

Very few people draw attention to the phenomenon of seeing visions of faces in clouds, and on wallpaper because, although it is common, it is not very well understood. Today it is called Pareidolia (vague and random visual or auditory stimulus being perceived as significant) and reading clouds was known as Aeromancy. The twin sister or Pareidolia is Apophenia (seeing patterns and connections in random data), which is where the completion instinct kicks in. Where we see gaps, we fill them in decoratively or meaningfully. Another aspect of it is Anthropomorphism where we attribute human qualities to non-human forces, making ‘god’ an old man with a beard for centuries when she might have been a woman all along.

In one sense, it is not really important what these fancy labels are, it  is the direct experience of the shape of events as they happen around us that matters, and following the guidance that sometimes emerges. But being able to read the signs can so easily escape our attention – due to our split consciousness. There is part of our awareness we focus on and a larger intake from the more peripheral stuff that we generally miss. Hypnotherapists and media spinners work effectively with this all the time.  Yet, on the other hand, signs are everywhere and readable to the person whose mind is not preoccupied, but more open.

In Man and His Symbols C.G. Jung noted that Leonardo da Vinci said “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.” Hardly a day goes by without my seeing mysterious faces emerge in towels, artworks develop from cracks on walls, but I have to confess I’m not sure I could eat my toast if I saw an image of Jesus or Madonna appear on it. Perhaps I’d frame it on the wall instead or sell it on E-bay? I see visions in clouds too, but it does not make me want to become a Muslim. How we respond to the signals is highly personal, yet crucial, but just because it is subjective, does not invalidate the experience. In fact, that is all we have.

The Rorschach Test
The Rorschach Test

The Rorschach (inkblot) test is another good example of the apophenic process. Psycho-therapists show ink blot shapes and observe the patients through their visual and verbal free associations with the image as stimulus. This test involves perceiving wholes through the gaps, revealing the structure of the psyche. It  is a way of thinking holistically, seeing ‘whole’ patterns where others see only parts. The Rorschach test, in spite of being labelled pseudoscience, is still widely used today as a way of prompting discussion with patients/clients as a way of opening up to the unconscious mind. Perceptual illusions work in this way also. As for facial recognition, we are also hard wired to perceive emotions to facial stimuli in a nano-second. Faces are crucial to understanding the world or we would have treated mum and dad like total strangers.

So why is it that we see things that are, by most accounts, not there? Well, if we listen to Deepak Chopra, some mental furniture needs to be shifted before we can understand. We are not in the world; the world is in us. What we see is a matter of choice anyway. He asks us to respect ‘synchronicity’ more. “Synchronicity” means  in or with time; events occurring at the same time.  The Chinese saw these as thematic clusters like when we say things happen in threes. It is associated with coincidence, which is characterized by inexplicable or improbable events. This is what Deepak Chopra calls a “conspiracy of improbability” and they are  “glimpses into the creative mind of the universe “……”relationships are mirrors and the world is an extension of the self and expresses itself through archetypes.”…”When you live your life with an appreciation of coincidences and their meanings, you connect with the underlying field of infinite possibilities. This is when the magic begins. This is a state I call synchrodestiny, in which it becomes possible to achieve the spontaneous fulfillment of our every desire. Synchro-destiny requires gaining access to a place deep within yourself, while at the same time awakening to the intricate dance of coincidences.”

Deepak Chopra: Synchronicities
Deepak Chopra: Synchronicities

Psychologists talk of this as ‘cognitive errors’ which are measured using a statistical method that is posited seeing something that does not exist. I’m not so sure they will penetrate the veil that way. We see what we want to see and here lies the problem of whether we split the world into an ‘objective’ reality outside us and an internal ‘subjective’ reality inside using the posited external as the default for determining what is true or false. This default mode is what blocks more openness to intuition and synchronicities.

The multiverse is inherently mysterious. Even scientists are genuinely puzzled at the phenomena that occur making our world less material and more spiritual so that now they are saying what mystics have been saying for centuries; the world is in us, not we in the world. Arthur Eddington explained this befuddlement well by saying “something unknown is doing something; we don’t know what.”

Assigning meaning or patterns to something is a danger, but is also a joy. It’s your choice: if it resonates with you, then that’s what it means. To allow someone else to assign meaning is to sacrifice the integrity of your own psyche. You can feel impelled to go in a certain direction in life because of what you sense or see in each tiny incident. Change. Return. Success: It’s nice to have those options. Increased awareness and intuition can be the result.

© Kieron Devlin, 2014

all rights reserved


2 thoughts on “Pareidolia: The Face of Things Unseen

  1. Well, that was thorough ! I had no idea there were so many `sciences` of symbols !!
    As for seeing landscapes , I have often found beautiful and wondrous landscapes and seascapes inside my crystals and got lost in their beauty. Really mysterious places full of lore where my imagination can run wild .
    Now, synchronicities, mmm, they have been part of my life and I do pay more attention to them than maybe the `normal` folk . Sometimes I do share these `coincidences` with close friends and family, but most of the times it is something I prefer to keep inside.
    I just cannot talk about such little pearls from Heaven too lightly or too often.
    They hold such special place in my heart and I like to keep them there, a mystery and secret between the Universe and I 🙂
    This was a very beautiful article, thanks for sharing !!


    1. Yes, so many. That’s the reason it’s worth brushing up on symbolic literacy. Plus nice that you can see them in crystals too. I can’t see them in my Lek Lai stone, as it is opaque, but I can feel them, as they are drawn from the caves that the teachers meditate in. I am dazzled by the richness of the images i see just on my yoga mat, but seeing face profiles in rocks, and angels of death in trees, Jesus on toast, or on a grain of rice are also commonly reported. I call myself a synchronicitist in my profile to refer to being aware of these alignments as regular aspect of life, but in fact, our whole lives are evidence of synchronicity. As Robert Ohotto likes to say our ‘ancestral DNA’ and lifetime ‘coordinates’ of sex,race,nationality, parents, and flowchart of potentials are all evidence that some design beyond just ‘chance’ is at work. Some synchronicities, I agree are very subtle and personal and there’s no point telling anyone.But others might be worth sharing.
      Thanks for you comments.


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