I don’t spend enough time cloud-watching. Anymore, that is. There was a time when I thought nothing of enjoying a few delightfully lazy hours laying in the grass in our yard and watching the show in the sky. All sorts of magnificent and wondrous images would float along morphing themselves into even more impressive and fanciful cloud sculptures. Pirate ships, Dragons, Circus elephants, Castles, masks and even the occasional double-decker-deluxe hamburger would lazily float by on that ever changing canvas.
Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: Pareidolia. This is why vague images are interpreted by our brains as specific images. Such as when we see shapes in clouds, animal-shaped potato chips, Elvis in a grilled peanut butter & banana sandwich or an infamous face on Mars.
Carl Sagan noted in his classic book, The Demon Haunted World that this tendency is probably associated with other facets of individual survival. He wrote:
“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.
As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none. We assemble disconnected patches of light and dark and unconsciously see a face. The Man in the Moon is one result” (Sagan 1995: 45).
Evolution has designed us this way. When our newly upright, foraging ancestors walked through impenetrable forests with random shapes everywhere, it was important to spot a tiger or see a snake as quickly as possible. Likewise, it was important for them to recognize people’s faces. A glimpse of an eye, a corner of a cheekbone, was that a smile, is this friendly or threatening… they needed to know instantaneously in order to survive. So our brains got used to jumping quickly to conclusions, even if they weren’t the right conclusions.
While I understand this hardwired recognition is essential for survival and protection, I still prefer to call it “imagination”.
I no longer have to worry about lions and saber-toothed tigers waiting to devour me every time I walk around a corner. I do watch for snakes though – snakes are creepy little ropes of terror. And don’t even get me started on spiders….
But even considering all of that I think it is high time I started to get my imagination “ripped and toned”. I really need to get my imagination muscles back in shape.
So, I am going to spend a lot more time laying in my grass and watching the clouds pass by my house. And a lot less time focused on those “pre-planned no imagination needed” interpretations on that flickering little screen in my den.
Of course my neighbors will probably look out their windows and, seeing me laying in the grass, call the paramedics…
Currently listening to:
Cumbanchero from the Album Introducing Ruben Gonzalez
Current weather – overcast, 88°F, light showers