Pareidolia on toast

Our brains are meaning factories. I just learned this word – Pareidolia – which describes the brain’s way of mashing the messy pieces of the world into a pretty jigsaw of purpose and predictability. Pareidolia is not only fun, but profitable, at least for the seller of this iconic piece of toast.

Our blessed lady of multigrain

Ancient man saw much he could not explain. But he explained it anyway. And with no science to refute his explanations he was happy as a lark. For example:

Sacrifices – the god of harvests loves to see the goat blood get spilled! But he’s only going to be watching the altar on top of that hill, and only once a year.  

Also, raindances – yep, my milkshake brings all the rain to the yard…

But, with the advent of science, such rudimentary ideas gave way. Instead we have:

Four-leaf clovers – Why wouldn’t funny plants make things happen?

Lucky underpants – The bits that wore away weren’t the parts they drew their power from.

The ‘Truth about 9/11’ conspiracies – a million thousand .html pages of sloppy photoshopping and bad grammar. I don’t read them, because I know I’ll start believing if I do. I really will.

Yep, linking causes with effects is built in to our brains – OCD people don’t even need to see effects to come up with causes! They’re sure that all that pacing, hand-washing and stepping between the cracks is keeping them and their loved ones from coming to horrible ends.

And don’t even get me started on the causation catch-all, god. A being who moves in ways so mysterious as to neatly mimic the effects of randomness.

Seeing pictures.

Face in the Cydonia region of Mars

Finding faces in the sky is one thing, but what really underlines how nuts we are is the Rorschach inkblot test. The mind is able to bend a deliberately meaningless blob on a page to fit the shape of its own truths. And it does this so reliably that an actual science has used it to diagnose disorders. Yipes.


Why do some chord progressions and harmonies feel ‘right’, and the rest feel wrong? The brain gets the same positive feedback from a logical argument as from a logical chord progression! This, surely, is evidence that the brain is not fit for purpose.

And music doesn’t keep its meaning to itself, it imparts to the things around it: Have you ever seen the lyrics for your favourite song written down? They sure don’t look so awe-inspiring and powerful now…

And, of course, that niggling suspicion that your ipod random mode is, in fact, determined by some pattern forever just beyond your grasp…

To end on here’s a quote from the song Middle of the Hill by Josh Pyke:

The noises that the trains made sounded like people in my head
And the stories that the ceiling told
Through the pictures in the grains in the pine-wood boards

Think you sense a deeper meaning in all the above claptrap? Leave a comment!

Published by


Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “Pareidolia on toast”

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s