I was proud of my imagination the other day -okay, just surprised, I guess; I was towelling myself after a morning shower and happened to pull my eyes away from the mirror and my fruitless attempts to narrow my waistline in profile, when for some reason I glanced at the tiled floor. I noticed a face gazing away from me, as if I’d caught it in some indiscretion. My bathroom floor is not in the slightest la-di-da; it’s grey, with an irregular, unpolished surface -presumably for traction not beauty.
And yet, there it was: a man’s face looking for all the world like that line profile of Alfred Hitchcock that used to start his TV episodes – and, remarkably, it had been completely unbeknownst to me all the years I’ve been walking over it. I wondered why I’d never noticed it before, and then promptly forgot about it until the next morning when I finished my shower. I was standing in my usual spot -there’s not much choice, really- and although I suddenly remembered it, I couldn’t find the face. I shuffled my feet over a range of tiles, but this time, there was only a sheep standing there staring off into the ceramic distance. I don’t know where the man went.
I realize that we are creatures of patterns; I suppose it helps us categorize our world, and perhaps react more quickly if we can see the similarity to a predator, or something. But on the bathroom floor? When I was younger, I would have merely fobbed it off like Scrooge did in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, as an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato -but being of an age, my first thought was of dementia.
For days I was afraid to look at the floor after my shower, fearing that whoever, or whatever, lived down there might actually be watching me next time, not politely averting its eyes so as not to be caught looking up. But I just knew it would only be a matter of time before I saw another face, hiding quietly in another venue.
And sure enough, one morning while I was huddled over my Formica counter waiting for my bagel to cool after toasting, I suddenly began to suspect I was being observed. I don’t know why I ever opted for squiggly lines on a black background -although I rather suspect it was in case I spilled some milk or something and didn’t want to have to wipe it up until I was finished eating.
Of course, that was when I used to have to rush off to work, but I’m retired now and I have more time to sightsee around my plate. Perhaps that was why I noticed another face in the pattern just centimetres from the toaster. This was a rather jolly looking face -not at all reproving, like my mother’s when I tried to hide bits of gristle under my plate. Anyway, it seemed to enjoy watching me eat, although it always seemed to have suddenly looked away whenever I tried to catch it in flagrante delicto, as it were.
It had friends, of course -I began to notice them quietly camouflaging themselves as knots in the wooden bookcase in the bedroom, and behind patterns on my couch, or using crumbs as makeup on the floor under the TV-table where I have my evening meals. None of them were threatening, and none of them seemed to want to communicate with me, or anything. But I never tried -honest… Okay, I occasionally chuckled at them, but I do that to the mirror as well whenever I discover a bit of lettuce from my salad thinking it can stay between my teeth if it’s really quiet.
Anyway, I discovered that I’m really pretty good at seeing patterns, but I thought I’d better check to see if, well, if it was abnormal, or whatever. That was when I discovered I had been outed -or rather, my ability had been. I, for want of a better name, am a pareidoliac -which is my neologism for someone who exhibits pareidolia, the ability to do what I do with random arrangements of shapes or lines. I even discovered a fascinating article (and pictures) about it in Earth Skies Tonight written by Larry Sessions, a former planetarium director and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. You never know until you look, eh?: https://earthsky.org/human-world/seeing-things-that-arent-there
‘Seeing recognizable objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia,’ he writes. ‘It’s a form of apophenia, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information. Everyone experiences it from time to time… The ability to experience pareidolia is more developed in some people and less in others.’
Uhmm, I hope you noticed that he doesn’t even mention dementia.
As a matter of fact, he seems to think that ‘the pareidolic images we discover tend to indicate things about which we are most interested.’ I’m not so sure about that, however. Although I suppose I’ve always had a passing interest in faces -I mean who can resist looking in a mirror?- I still can’t imagine it’s enough to summon them up whole cloth from my bathroom tiles. Of course I can’t speak for my subconscious or anything -and who knows what lives in the shadows down there- but I’d like to think it could come up with something more exciting than what it’s been showing me lately.
It seldom comes up with a title for some book it thinks might interest me, and it never provokes me with religious images, or anything… Well, I think there was a head with a beard that could have been Jesus, I guess, but I actually thought it looked more like Johannes Brahms.
At any rate, most of them were known to me, and certainly welcome on my tiles, or wherever. For some reason, though, there were very few women, and certainly none in scant attire as I might have hoped. I was probably allotted an uncommonly polite form of pareidolia -go figure, eh? But maybe old neurons can only connect in certain ways without shorting. And yet, in the words of Alexander Pope, Hope springs eternal in the human breast…
Oh well, at least it’s a social life.