The World Is a Rorschach Test

Exploring pareidolia.


I have a piece about pareidolia in The Wall Street Journal today. Here's an excerpt:

On 9/11, a Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer named Mark Phillips climbed to his roof and snapped photos of the burning World Trade Center, which were then distributed by the Associated Press. Later he learned that people were seeing an unexpected image in one of the photographs. When he examined the picture he saw it, too. "The image I saw was distinct," he later wrote. "Eyes, nose, mouth, horns." There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan.

Search online and you'll see still more 9/11 pictures in which people have perceived the shapes of demons. There is no shortage of theories about what the faces mean, from the Christian conspiracist who said they were a glimpse of the devil boasting to the Muslim writer who declared they were a warning from God "that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam."

Then there is the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to see a man in the moon, to hear a satanic incantation when "Stairway to Heaven" is played backward, or to conjure the image of your subconscious choice while taking a Rorschach test. Indeed, pareidolia makes the whole world a Rorschach test.

The article is adapted from my book The United States of Paranoia. And speaking of that:

The Globe and Mail has just reviewed the book, declaring that it has "so many tasty morsels of historical marginalia that it nearly bursts with weirdness." My kinda blurb.

• W. Joseph Campbell has cited the book while explaining how an upcoming PBS program might get the tale of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds wrong.

• If you're going to be in the D.C. area on September 11, you should come see Sam Tanenhaus, Gene Healy, and me discuss the book at the Cato Institute. Admission is free but RSVPs are a must; to let Cato know you're coming, click here.