Monday, August 2, 2010

Seeing is Believing

It's a face?!

The ability to recognise patterns is one that is vital to us humans. This starts with babies being able to distinguish first faces, and then the particular faces that are of import to them, but it was also a driving force in our harnessing of technology and the world around us. Agriculture started when the first person noticed that a plant grew in the same place that he, or she, had previously dropped a seed – two facts coming together to form a recognisable pattern. We still do it all the time today, and it forms the basis of much of our decision-making.

Martian masonry?
There is a massive problem with this. Pattern recognition might be an immensely powerful and useful tool, but it also has the ability to lead us massively astray. Correlation does not mean causation, as the mantra has it. In other words, just because two events happened at a similar time, or in close proximity, does not mean that they are related. They could be, of course, but they don’t have to be. So if you take a pill and a short while later your headache goes, did the pill cure it? Maybe, but maybe it was going anyway

Jesus toast!
The best way to show how easily we are deceived into seeing patterns is the phenomena of pareidolia, particularly that aspect of it that can be more usefully termed as ‘seeing faces’. Go back to that baby we all once were, whose first talent was the ability to recognize their mum and dad. This is so deeply ingrained in us that all that we need is three circles and a line and we can conjure a face. Given more information we begin to see them everywhere; from monumental sculptures on the Martian surface to Jesus appearing in the morning toast. Believe in little green men if you like, or that our Lord is manifesting himself at the breakfast table, but I think we are just kidding ourselves. These kind of stories might be amusing, but actually they’re proof of how incredibly easy it is for us to be completely and utterly fooled by our own senses and brains. More of this later.

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