Pareidolia and a sense of pattern

People occasionally flip out when I tell them I'm chronically pareidolic. Briefly, pareidolia -- from pieces of Greek meaning roughly "faulty perception of shapes" -- is seeing a familiar pattern where none is developed or intended. It's a form of apophenia, which is perceiving meaning in randomness. It is not the same as hallucinating or being paranoid; hallucinations are experiences perceived as resulting from external stimuli where none exist, and paranoia involves the belief that the pareidolic patterns are real, and generally out to get you. All humans are pareidolic to some extent. Otherwise we wouldn't see a rabbit in the moon, faces in the clouds, or the patterns in the stars that we call constellations. An inability to group things into patterns, in fact, is considered dysfunctional, and is part of a variety of neurological and psychological conditions like prosopagnosia, and some autism spectrum disorders.

I have told psychologists, counselors, and the one psychiatrist I ever actually managed to get a hold of about it, and as far as I know, they think it's weird but not worrying. I suppose they might have just elected not to tell me, but mental health professionals don't have any better a record of hiding things from me than anyone else does -- worse, in some cases, because I am already hep to such profoundly annoying things as Rogerian therapy techniques. I think of it as akin to synaesthesia, if you consider things like "edge detection" and "grammar" to be pseudo-senses. I am well aware that there isn't "really" a pattern present to detect, just as synaesthetes are aware that the letter T isn't "really" nutty, and the number 9 isn't "really" blue. The perception that there is comes from taking in randomness and letting my brain flip through other patterns I've encountered in the past until it settles on a "best fit" regression. I have some crossed wires somewhere that fail to filter out patterns on the basis that you wouldn't normally find them in whatever I'm paying attention to, and the end result is that when I'm bored I stare idly at stucco and think 'hm, if I connected up those dots and edges, it would look kind of like a galloping horse'.

I'm also aware that this is an inevitable side effect of whatever makes me very, very good at detecting patterns that do exist. My false negative rate (i.e., thinking "this doesn't make sense, I don't get it at all" even if the relationships between pieces are spelled out) is significantly lower than normal, but increased sensitivity comes with decreased specificity, and my false positive rate (i.e., "that cloud looks kinda like a hippo") is sky-high. My reality testing is perfectly intact and weeds out the real things from the vague resemblances, although if I'm medicated, falling asleep, or just really zonked out for some reason, sometimes something illusory will run away with all my attention for a split second before the algorithm catches up.

As far as I know, I was born with this particular software module pre-installed. My mother likes to tell the story of carting me around town when I was pre-walking and just barely verbal, and being baffled at the way I kept waving my hands at things and exclaiming "teddy bear!" She finally figured out that I was pointing at fire hydrants. Which do look a little like a traditional teddy bear in silhouette, if you're a creative toddler who has been staring at the damn things all day. Nobody has any idea when the hell I actually learned to read, either, least of all me; I just decided to randomly give a public demonstration one day when I was not quite two-ish.

I've since learned to weaponize this shit. I recently confounded a grad student who was running a language experiment at Harvard, gathering data on how children and adults differ on using contextual clues to figure out new words when an explicit definition is not available. The idea was that kids will listen for cues like "some of the big blue frotzes" and look for someone who has some big blue things, then back up and figure those must be what "frotzes" are. Prevailing wisdom is that after you pass a critical stage in language development, this tactic gives way to formal logic and dictionaries. I apparently never lost the contextual thing in the first place, which does go rather a long way towards explaining why I had no trouble picking up a second language at the ripe old age of fourteen. I really hate the way most things are spoon-fed incrementally in formal schooling; I work best when I'm given as much data as possible, and just left alone to stare at it for a few hours.

While I'm mostly conscious of this happening, I don't usually have to consciously invoke it, if you follow. It runs as a continual background process if I've got something else up on the mental desktop, and pops up an alert window as appropriate -- often an annoyingly modal one. The "one of these things is not like the others" warning is pernicious and will keep reappearing until I give it an acceptable answer. In the past few weeks, it's pinged on one of the pile of things I got from the library listed as being "by" Charlie Chaplin (the first biography published, it went off hard on like the first paragraph as not matching either the photobook or the 500-page autobiographical brick; the book is generally agreed to have been ghostwritten by a studio biographer); on a particular episode of Law & Order (the color grade was off, the film showed a suspicious amount of dirt and noise, and the cinematography was unusually shaky; that one turned out to have been the original pilot, shot over a year before the rest of the series was green-lit); and about an hour ago, it kicked me hard in the back of the brain to tell me that the "Mongol" girl in Thief of Bagdad was genuinely Asian (bizarre and nearly unheard of in 1924, unless it turned out to be Anna May Wong, which it was).

The "hey, I'm seeing a trend here" dialog box is less obnoxious, unless it's been set off by an unfamiliar language, in which case I have to go find out what it says, because one of the things I hate most in the entire world is running into something I can't read. That particular fweeper is so ubiquitous that I have lost all sense of what normal people do or don't realize is some kind of intentional communication. It leads to a lot of incidents where I glance over at something and go "what does it say?" and other people look at me like I'm mad because it never occurred to them that it said anything in the first place.

I have a lot of mental imagery and metaphors for examining the process as it happens. It took me much longer to learn how to explain what I was doing than it did for me to realize I was doing it in the first place. I still have a problem with it on occasion; language by nature is linear, and the helpful pareidolia takes place in n dimensions, usually two or three. People sometimes talk about a "chain" of deductions when a detective solves a mystery, but for me, it isn't. It's more a bunch of layers that build up like transparencies, or animation cells. There are a number of smaller deductions that lay scattered about on one priority level, all of equal importance. Once I have that layer done, the results combine on the next level up, and so on and so forth, until when all the layers are complete, they combine to form a recognizable picture.

The problem isn't detailing what I know, it's trying to figure out how to go through it in some sort of coherent order. I have to explain the lower levels first or the higher levels won't make any sense, but the things that share a layer are initially related only by their common layer, so there's no good algorithm for assigning "first this", "second this", "third this". The logical connection doesn't become at all apparent until the top level ties all of the lower ones together. I either have to explain the entire first layer, then the entire second layer, then the entire third layer, etc., which comes out sounding schizophrenically disjointed until I get to the very end; or I have to continually climb up and down the stack of things, explaining them one path at a time from bottom to top, which takes forever and involves a lot of untidy repetition.

Another drawback to this is that, unless whoever you're talking to has either a passing familiarity with the topic or independent confirmation of your sanity, trying to explain a non-linear thought process is almost indistinguishable from being a complete unmedicated foot loop. I think people normally assume I'm a genius, mostly because I do things they associate with very smart people like seek out math intentionally and read very large books for fun, but I really have no idea. I have a very hard time finding people who feel professionally qualified to assess stuff I write academically, largely because the pareidolia has no respect for traditional subject boundaries, and almost everything I do is inherently cross-discipline. I'm not entirely sure I could write a paper that's entirely full of psychology, or philosophy, or anthropology, without dragging in anything else.

The internet is a godsend, largely because if you are willing to click around long enough, literally everything is linked to everything else. As an undergrad, I lobbied to be allowed to turn in papers on a CD more than once, because not being able to hyperlink things drove me insane.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. Do you find that you're amazingly good at Wheel of Fortune because you know word patterns so well that you can look at the O here and the P there and know it can only be this or that word? Or is this skill/talent/quirk restricted to shapes in a stricter sense?

    1. I don't watch game shows much -- I don't watch broadcast TV much, really. I even kind of gave up on cable when Discovery, TLC and History devolved into utter crap rather than educational programming. I'm good at word games in general, partly because of this, and partly because I read everything in visual range, and have a huge recognition vocabulary. I picked up Jigsaw Words for Kindle at one point and cleared the entire thing in less than a day. Crosswords vary depending on how "clever" the clue writer thinks they are.

      The pattern recognition module works pretty well on anything that displays any kind of repeating behavior, actually. Word games, number games, logic games, grammar, math, artwork, human behavior, and probably a ton of other things I haven't thought to list. Also things that are physically rehearsed, like stage blocking and dance, although obviously my coordination varies with practice and effort. The "this has happened before" and the "this reminds me of something else that started out this way" flags are related but separate; I don't see why I wouldn't be able to learn things that are completely unrelated to anything I've ever seen before, but since all the things I have seen and likely all the things I will ever see are a product of either the laws of physics or the human brain, I'm not sure how I would go about finding something truly "unrelated" without personally discovering extraterrestrial life.

      On the other hand, having all this stuff stored in my head for comparison does not necessarily mean I'm good at cataloging it. I've been known to tell people that of course everything is filed neatly away in my head, except it's all under M for MISC. :) Every so often I get stuck on something I've seen that reminded me of something I couldn't put my finger on. I just kind of wander around thinking, "that reminds me of something WHAT DOES THAT REMIND ME OF I KNOW IT'S IN HERE" until I manage to find it.

  2. "pareidolia has no respect for traditional subject boundaries, and almost everything I do is inherently cross-discipline."

    That's a good way to put it. My previous therapist told me upon our first meeting, " you're a very deep thinker." Later sessions, she added the qualifier of "robust thinker", saying that CBT was suited for such types. Therapist prior to that described my way of thinking as "meta". I don't do the kind of thing you describe constantly, but fairly frequently. And I definitely fall prey to the rabbit-hole quality of the internet, hence my attempts to cut back in recent months (truth be told, I attempted years ago during my first bout with Lexapro, but have only recently had much success actually doing so).

  3. I'm kind of close to tears right now because I'd researched all of the standard learning styles and concluded that I'm broken. But. But. I'm not alone. No one has ever agreed with me about learning best when just given a glut of material and time to ingest it.

    Like the time I taught myself french - at 14 - with the aid of a huge french grammar textbook, an excellent dictionary, and printouts of several short stories written in french that I'd found online. I used to spend my free time sitting reading this textbook in the school library (I was *terribly* popular) with no conception of why other people didn't sit around reading textbooks and reference books.

    Nor have I ever been able to explain my strange, pattern-oriented (but not in a visual sense; more...spacially? Audially? My slight touch of synaesthesia complicates things here, but I can only tell you it doesn't happen in a visual kind of way) non-linear way of thinking. I'd got to "kindof like a fireworks display" and given up. But I like the layers metaphor, and how everything is interrelated so when you add just one piece of extra information suddenly there are about 5 new conclusions or directions and everything locks in and you just *understand* the concept of force without being able to explain it coherently to other people. At least not without stepping back and trying to place your foundational ideas and conclusions in some sort of order that someone but you is likely to understand.

    Oh gods. Um. Sorry, that was a massive wall of text. I'm just - relieved. I am not broken! There are others like me!

    Also um. I really like your blog, it's terribly entertaining in a brain-nourishing kind of way to read, and also hi :)

    1. Congratulations, you are a Weird Smart Kid. I collect them. I point out famous ones a lot. I recommend playing the Ace Attorney games if you have a DS -- the people who write them are devout parishioners at the First Universal Church of Chekov's Gun, and the resolutions are hilariously friendly to firework-style thinking.

      My asshat family decided to pick on me for sitting around reading a textbook while I was waiting for my college commencement to start. I was like, You're just starting this NOW? Where have you BEEN for the last 22 years? They're uninvited to further academic accomplishments. I got tired of dislocating my shoulders with them, so I bought a Kindle.

    2. Dislocating my shoulders with textbooks, I mean. I never tried to carry three or four family members in a messenger bag. They wouldn't have been as interesting.

  4. Yay! I tend to refer to my thinking-pattern-ness as 'spiderweb logic', where everything is interconnected, and stereotypical thinking patterns as 'tree logic', where everything is linear and nice and fairly tidy.


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