Life Lines: On learning a new word

Life Lines: On learning a new word

What do you see in the clouds? Photo by Gerard Romano

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

It is rare for me to learn a new word as I approach my 90th year. The ones I encounter are usually scientific because I look through science journals and e-science news.  Even less frequently do I learn new words from popular culture. 

The word I just learned is “pareidolia.”  It refers to the capacity most humans have of seeing images where they don’t belong like seeing a man in the moon or faces and bodies in the clouds. Optical illusions also provide such constructions from ambiguous drawings. 

Some people have heightened imaginations and I recall my mother, who was schizophrenic, often imagining people staring at her, whispering about her, or saying to me that the sitter I hired to look after my bed-ridden father when my wife Nedra and I went out, was a Nazi disguised in woman’s clothing. I also remember the great pleasure I had as a youth in the 1940s reading Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby, a boy who had an imaginary  fairy godfather who used his cigar as a magic wand.  

There are boundary lines between illusion and delusion. That includes religious apparitions, conversations with God or saints, revelations dictated to a scribe that become religious scripture. It includes the oral tradition of polytheistic religions like the Greek and Roman Gods.  For the most part these are tolerated or admired in our cultures. 

What is less convincing are the mental constructions used to justify racial prejudice, assigning hereditary fixed traits to people based on caste or social class. At one time it was assumed an upper-class person (often with a title) would not lie and his testimony would be sufficient in court. In politics there is a tendency to define an opponent by looking for flaws in character or errors of judgment that get amplified if not invented.  

I wonder if all creativity in the arts involve a similar ability to see patterns and images that come out of difficult to pin down experiences in the preceding days or weeks. Clearly there is a spectrum of such images with outcomes that can be inspiring, beneficial, of even hateful in their consequences. Fortunately, reason and science offer ways to prevent  or limit such bad outcomes. 

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.