Paris Jackson shared a selfie with the world, and the world reacted. “What is that in the back seat of the car?” came the cries, “It’s Michael, he’s alive!”.
If you took one look at that jumble of textiles and saw The King of Pop, I’m here to burst your bubble. Behold, the power of pareidolia.
Faces on Mars, Elvis in your potato chips, Jesus on your toast. We see faces everywhere they aren’t, and we have our non-sceptical brains to thank. If life was The X-Files, our brains would be Mulder. Our brains are this guy.
They want to believe. And in this case, it’s in faces. Faces in everything.
When we see an object, our brains try to make sense of it — quickly. In order to get it done — fast — skepticism doesn’t play a big role. Our brains effectively take the path of least resistance, trying to recognise familiar shapes even in unfamiliar objects.
It makes perfect sense when you realise that literally everything you see is light patterns patterns falling on your retina. It’s only when what we see is communicated to other parts of the brain we start to try and make sense of it — and we are more likely to match those patterns up with recognisable objects, things we have seen before.
Our life experiences provide “templates” for what we are hard-wired to recognise — like certain faces. If you worship the Virgin Mary she’s more likely to show up in the rising damp of your apartment wall.
An if you’re a fan of Michael Jackson, well, you’re likely following his daughter’s instagram account.
Amazingly, pareidolia is not even a human-only trait — pareidolia has been recreated using Google Maps, tracking down humanoid-like qualities on the surface on the Earth.
Pareidolia also comes in auditory versions — the whole “when you play this tape backwards it has a statantic message” thing — and has been used as a way to explain ghostly visions.
So why are you seeing Michael Jackson in the backseat of Paris’ car? Because you really, really want to.