Before I get started, if you are new to this blog perhaps you would be interested in my journey from Pentecostal minister to evangelical atheist, preaching the good news that god almost certainly does not exist and so you can quit worrying about hell. If interested you can find the beginning of my journey here, My Journey Away From Faith: Part 1.
So let me give you a scenario…
Imagine it’s 30,000 years ago and you’re walking through the woods late at night. You really shouldn’t be out here but those berries were so damn good that you just couldn’t stop eating them and time got away from you. As you’re walking you hear the leaves rattle, you hear a twig snap, and something catches the corner of your eye. It could be a large nocturnal predator, it could be a hunter from the next tribe over, or it could simply be the wind. Do you continue along your way, run in the opposite direction, or try to find your way into the nearest tree? If you make the wrong choice you might not survive and so you choose to climb and wait things out. As soon as you find a good seat in a large branch you look down to see a wolf making its way through the brush below. You made the right choice and live to see tomorrow. Good job!
Now why did I bring up this scenario?
Well, humans have great instincts, it is what has allowed us to survive as long as we have and yet those instincts can also play tricks on us. These tricks often come in the form of apophenia and it’s sister phenomena pareidolia.
Apophenia – The tendency to make connections or perceive patterns in seemingly unrelated things.
Pareidolia- The tendency of the mind to find patterns where they do not actually exist.
The picture to the right is a man…but wait…no it’s not. Yet anyone reading this blog will be able to recognize that the figure made of simple shapes is a representation of a man. It’s a series of straight lines with a big circle on top, a couple small circles for eyes, and a rounded line for a mouth. Yet find me a single human being that truly looks like this, if you could I imagine that person would have an incredibly hard time standing up. Yet, this is a very simple example of apophenia, the picture itself has absolutely no connection to what an actual human being looks like and yet we are all able to recognize exactly what the image represents. Take the pieces apart and the image loses meaning entirely, hence we do not recognize the circle to the right as being a head. Nor would we recognize a single line as being a spine, an arm, or a leg. Only together do we see the pattern as meaning something possibly useful.
A more detailed example of apophenia is what I gave above in the story of the primitive man and the wolf. A series of sounds and a slight amount of movement was enough for the person in the example to recognize the possible threat of a predator. Taken on their own they would not be anything to really worry about yet together they become something that is enough to cause the fight or flight response to kick in. This can be of great use is you are trying to evade predators or neighboring tribes but it can also work against us and build ideas of monsters in the dark, dragons in caves, and leviathons of the deep. We will discuss this more later.
Most of us have experienced sitting in the grass on a warm spring day looking up at the clouds. One looks like a dragon, one a rabbit, and another looks like a spaceship, yet do they really, the truth of the matter is more often than not they do not. Another example of this can be seeing images in wood grain, hearing footsteps or voices in an empty house, or seeing a phantom out of the corner of your eye. Some examples of pareidolia can be pretty convincing…
The interesting thing about this phenomena is that it is greatly subject to suggestion. Take the cloud example, you look up and your friend says, “That one looks like a dick.” You try to see what he’s talking about and so he points in the general direction, describes what he is seeing and eventually you do see the dick in the clouds…isn’t life grand. The reason for this is that our minds are constantly seeking patterns, and it can be both really good at this as well as really bad at it. Suggestion helps us seek out the patterns easier and so once one person sees it, two can see it, and even thousands may at some point see the exact same patter….going so far as to eventually worship that pattern.
Hello Jesus, why are you hiding on this dogs ass? That’s a silly place for you to hide….
As I said before our minds are constantly attempting to find patterns in the things we see as well as the things we hear, but due to pareidolia, our minds can make connections where there is absolutely no connection to be made.
Earlier I mentioned monsters in the dark, dragons in caves, and phantoms in the corners of our eyes. While some of these may seem silly, most of us can remember a time when we have been horribly frightened by something that was not actually there, this happens often when we are children yet can still occur no matter how old we are.
Monsters in the Dark
Humans are not known for their nocturnal vision, we are diurnal creatures and so for our eyes to work well we need a decent amount of light. In low light situations our minds grasp at any shape it can find and then builds upon that shape to give us an idea of what is there in the dark. A full hamper in the corner may take on the shape of a beast with numerous arms once the light goes out. A pair of shoes under a bed can become a vampire to the child brave enough to look under their mattress. Our eyes are shitty at night and yet our minds try their best to make sense of whatever sensory information we get, it’s a crap shoot but it worked out enough as a survival tactic for thousands of years that it still sticks with us today.
Dragons in Caves
Caves are dark, sound travels strangely through the walls of a cave, and at the mouth of an open cave the wind passing by the entrance can sound like a growl or a ghostly wail. Secondly, as you venture deeper into a cave the temperature can be much warmer than the temp outside the cave, giving the idea that something hot must exist within the confines of the cave. Dragons breathe fire and so obviously a dragon would make a cave warmer than it is outside. Many caves have insects which use light to attract their pray and a glowing bug or two can look an awful lot like the eyes of a beast if fear has already crept into your mind.
Phantoms in the Corners of Our Eyes
Our eyes are really shitty….I mean they are the only eyes that we will ever have and so they work as well as they can but they aren’t all that good to begin with. I’m blind in one eye and it took me years for my brain to compensate and learn how to judge depth in a decent way. I still would not be a good choice for a softball team or any activity that requires good depth perception.
Our eyes also have a fairly narrow field of actual vision. The rest of what we see is actually populated by the brain and so anything outside of that field is up to the mind to figure out. I think we’ve all had a time when we thought we saw something out of the corner of our eye but when we turned to see what it was there was nothing actually there. One might come up with gargantuan ideas of ghosts haunting our house, never quite being fully seen but always there. Our eyes are just not built to get 360 degrees of information and this is due to our need to focus on the task at hand. If you are trying to track a deer, you need to be able to see the deer, you don’t necessarily need to see everything around the deer and so our brains fill in the gaps.
Apophenia At It’s Worst
The volcano destroyed half the village last year. This year we killed 5 virgins and guess what, the volcano didn’t destroy the other half of the village. Killing virgins must satiate the volcano’s need for blood and so each year we must kill virgins to keep the village safe.
Last week Johns boat was destroyed by a wave, we saw a large shape in the water that had to be a sea serpent and john drowned and was almost certainly eaten by the beast. Dave was smart, he killed a chicken and rubbed its blood on the bow of his ship and no waves or serpents affected him. Dave also came back with a massive load of fish and so the chicken blood must have worked really well.
Pareidolia At It’s Worst
I heard a voice in the wind that told me to write the words of the lord. Here are the rules that this voice led me to write down. No Lying, no murder, and no goats in milk…it’s strange but I hate lying, murder, and I really hate goat and milk stew….it’s fucking disgusting.
I saw a light break through the clouds and standing upon the clouds I saw a man who told me the world was going to end soon….
Both of these phenomena have their evolutionary strengths which allowed them to continue being passed down in our genes. Yet they are built for humans that live in the wild and so the more we began to gather together, the less reliable our instincts were. They began playing tricks on us, making us see monsters, demons, gods, and demigods in every aspect of our lives.
It’s my opinion that much of religion and religious believe are derived from these phenomena. Someone saw something, suggested it to others who claimed to see the same thing, they built beliefs around what they claim to have seen, and religion was born. The wind, the rain, the sun, disease, all things could be explained by patterns that their minds found. Over time huge legends were built, books were written, and doctrine created and religion thrived.