Imposing Meaningful Interpretations on Nebulous Stimuli


Surely you have “seen” Snoopy or Santa in the clouds. Or a weird animal superimposed on the face of a rock. Rorschach inkblot tests allow you to imagine things, too. So you’ll probably want to know that I regularly see a drawing of a bird with antlers in my bathroom flooring. I love the activity of letting my mind conjure up stuff that’s not there.

I recently learned that there’s a word for this. We call faces and objects imagined on inanimate objects “pareidolia.” It comes from the Greek prefix para = entry and eidolon = image, reflection. “Imposing meaningful interpretations on nebulous stimuli” is the official online dictionary definition. So this past weekend, I decided to extend its meaning past visual occurrences or recorded music to weather when I joined nine other eager students in Houston for an outdoor painting workshop.

Led and hosted by the talented, humorous, and knowledgeable Suzie Baker in her brand new studio, we worked inside for three days with weather best described as vichyssoise or cold potato soup. Naturally, you can’t paint outdoors in cold soup, though our fearless leader did demonstrate painting a scene on her patio one day for about half an hour. You can bet that we skedaddled inside as soon as she put down her paintbrush.

Before embarking on this journey, my husband and I looked ahead on our weather apps and saw the predictions, but cold weather in Houston did not compute. We imagined warmth and a light rain instead. Rain, we get, but the thick, lumpy mess that enveloped us with its sogginess encouraged a sooner than planned exit. We got tired of “seeing” soup! I admire my sister and all who live there for their fortitude. I’m sure they see it as a fair trade for our wild and wooly wind.

But the soupy weekend reminded me that I often superimpose my expectations, or what I think I see, only to miss the actual object or truth in many ways. This time it worked for good. Had I not expected better weather than predicted, I might have been tempted to cancel and miss this excellent indoor but clearly not outdoor painting workshop. I would have failed to make ten new acquaintances and acquire a raft of information that I could apply immediately. Learning to pivot to accept the unexpected takes time to perfect. I will be working to excel at this task a while longer.

Pareidolia seems to occur with scripture reading, too. Passages that once rang with the sweet sound of truth now sound more like the bells of our downtown churches at noon: still very sweet but more insistent and more interesting. When I come with a fresh perspective, I gain more of His life in me. 

Even the “faces” or perceptions of church I used to own with all my heart now take on a softer glow knowing how vulnerable I am to my tendency to overlay past experiences. 

In addition, people sometimes leave false impressions. There’s a kind of pareidolia we succumb to when a personality rubs us wrong. When aggravation or misunderstanding distorts our evaluations, we can make poor assumptions about a person’s worth and value. Prejudicial relations of all kinds may fit in this category.

Along with these corrections, may we look at the photographs and video footage from Ukraine with imaginations that shift from what we think we see to more accurately comprehend the suffering so that we can pray meaningfully with fresh eyes.

Marianne Wood works as an editorial assistant and researcher for Bill Wright

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