Tuesday, April 27, 2021

My Kind of Pareidolia

I was introduced to the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia by artist David Zinn in his book, Underfoot Menagerie (2018).  He asserts that at the heart of his art is pareidolia which the Oxford English Dictionary (Third Edition, June 2018, latest online version – hidden behind a paywall) defines as:

The perception of recognizable patterns or images, in random or vague arrangements of shapes, lines, colours, etc.

The book presents a wealth of examples of his funny, whimsical, and highly ephemeral art composed almost exclusively with chalk on sidewalks and, on occasion, walls.

Zinn guides the reader through his artistic and psychological motivations, shows his artistic process, and, presents the reader with before-and-after photographs of the sidewalks and walls that he masterfully transforms.  The book captures the nature of Zinn’s work and shows how, when viewed from a certain perspective, his creations become three dimensional.  It’s really quite amazing.

For many examples of his art, I recommend visiting his website as well as watching a YouTube video showing the artist at work.  The best of these, I think, is David Zinn Master Street Chalk Art.  Zinn also gave a Ted Talk.

Pareidolia indeed drives the street art that Zinn creates.  The features of the surfaces upon which he draws inspire his compositions and these features are incorporated, sometimes quite subtly, into the scenes and creatures he creates.  The book cover (above) offers just a fleeting taste of the wonders that Zinn can create with what is at hand in the street.

Of pareidolia, Zinn writes

In addition to being temporary and childish, any random piece of sidewalk is more inspiration to me than a blank canvas simply because it is not blank.  There is always something here – a crack along the ground, a dropped piece of gum, or even just a scattering of specks and pebbles that want to become something more.

I used to worry that there was something strange about “seeing” things in the ground underneath my feet, but I have since learned that this a universal human condition called pareidolia:  our brains are always on the alert for possible patterns in the world around us, not matter how unlikely.

Zinn is too restrained in listing features of his “canvases” that generate his drawings.  I would add that his art embraces such things as tufts of grass emerging from cracks, the shape of a brick or two, a leaking water valve, a manhole cover, leaves, stains, shadows, posts and poles, and on and on and on.

Context is all important.  Were Zinn to use actual canvases as the surface upon which he draws, the pictures would surely still be engaging and fanciful, but they would be missing that critical element of surprise – the surprise of walking down the street and coming upon a tiny fishing hole with a swimming fish in a brick walk or a troll-like creature scowling from a wall.  It’s the context and the transformation of that context that render Zinn’s work so appealing.

I found a mild instance of pareidolia (at least, I think it is) last week in an EarthSky posting, What are Lunar X and Lunar V?, by Deborah Byrd.  She writes about Lunar X and Lunar V which are patterns that appear when certain features of the Moon’s surface are viewed at specific times and in certain light through a telescope.  These shapes of the letters X and V appear when the terminator (boundary on the Moon’s surface between light and dark) accentuates specific lunar topographical features (for the X:  rims of craters La Caille, Blanchini, and Purbach; for the V:  crater Ukert among other smaller ones).

The image below, taken in 2020 by Bautsch, shows Lunar X.  It is available on Wikimedia Commons  and is reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Shar Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Seeing the X here is no great stretch, requiring little in the way of imagination, and, certainly, no agent created this shape intentionally.  Rather, the letter emerges when we impose a pattern, as we are want to do, on elements of the craters that we see.  It takes no application of Zinn’s creativity to discern the letter.

The context is a critical part of what make these letters so striking.  Letters on the Moon?  Get out!

This brings to mind a very funny incident involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the flight of the helicopter Ingenuity on Mars; the humor was nearly wholly dependent upon context (in this instance, actually, upon being out of context).

In the lead up to the helicopter’s first flight on April 19, 2021, the device went through several steps, including unlocking the rotor blades and rotating them at a slow speed.  The JPL’s Twitter feed at 2:49 A.M. on April 8, started with this tweet:

That tweet took me aback, figuring that someone at the JPL had had a Martian brain freeze and meant to write “mind-boggling.”  But, in time (an embarrassingly long time), I realized I’d been fooled by the context (and by being out of touch with popular culture).  I was not the only one.

Among the first responses to that initial tweet were these two:

As confusion over “mind-bottling” became a strong undercurrent in the Twitter feed, many weighed in to challenge “mind-bottling” and others explained the reference.  Several hours later, the JPL tweeted its own explanation:

And perhaps the best response to that was:

Given that the JPL explanation doesn’t really clarify the reference, here’s an exchange from the movie (as posted on Quotes.net):

Chazz (played by Will Ferrell):  Mind-bottling, isn't it?

Jimmy (played by Jon Heder):  Did you just say "mind-bottling"?

Chazz:  Yeah. You know when things are so crazy, you get your thoughts trapped, like in a bottle.

Yes, it’s all about context.  Who’d expect JPL scientists to lead with a quotation from Blades of Glory?

Though pareidolia is apparently a visual phenomenon, I suspect there’s a variant that afflicts me, one that involves ideas.  It’s my way of dealing with a mental canvas that comes adorned with a few thoughts (“random or vague”).  Clearly, my pareidolia variant doesn’t lead me to create anything approaching the genius of Zinn’s drawings (“from such humble beginnings”).  Rather, the results are things like this blog post, bringing together disparate topics only because I see in them some sort of pattern, one that, in weaker moments, seems to justify putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard).  Admittedly, it does often lead me astray.

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