Working At Least One Muscle Group.

We have a wooden fence in the backyard and sometimes when I sit by it I feel like it’s watching me. I know it’s just pareidolia, that tendency to see patterns, usually faces, in random assortments of things. I’ve experienced it all my life but I wasn’t really conscious of it until I learned the term and then I realized how often it happens. But that’s no big deal because we all do it, right? Not everyone paints or draws but our ability to look at a work of art and see it as representing something, not just dabs of paint on fabric, is pareidolia. There’s really no such thing as truly “abstract” art because our brains will always perceive some kind of pattern or meaning in anything. Even the visually impaired perceive patterns in what they perceive. Pareidolia isn’t just visual–it can also be auditory. It makes evolutionary sense: camouflage is part of the arms race between predators and prey and being able to distinguish something hiding in the bushes is good for survival. Even if it turns out the bushes just look like there’s a jaguar in them at least we’re on alert. So we all experience it, right?

Then I read this article about how experiencing pareidolia is a sign of creativity and it’s made me really anxious. It says this:

Scientists are now exploring the connection between pareidolia and creativity; several recent studies have found that creative people are more apt to see pareidolias in the world around them than are less creative people. Assessing individuals’ capacity to recognize such patterns has even been proposed as a way to measure relative levels of creativity.

Am I experiencing pareidolia enough to legitimately call myself “creative”? What if I stop? Creativity is really important to me and always has been. I remember being told I was creative a lot as a kid. One example from second grade really stands out in my memory. My teacher, Mrs. Knight, had some kind of toy model kit in her classroom. It was like a Tinker Toy set but it combined hard pieces with colored flexible tubes. I found it one day and made an alien creature I called Boka. Boka was sort of a cross between a jellyfish and a giraffe, and I was marching it around the table when Mrs. Knight saw it and got really excited. She was always encouraging us to be creative—she was a great teacher—but Boka, this thing I’d just put together without much thought, seemed really imaginative to her. And that kind of recognition felt really good. Being creative felt like a superpower. Of course as my favorite superhero is famous for saying, With great power comes great responsibility. I felt pressure, all of it internal, to continue to be creative, to keep chasing that feeling. I also had, I think for the first time, a feeling that’s probably experienced by every person for whom creativity is important. What if this is the last thing I do? I couldn’t just keep copying Boka but what if I never created anything else that reached the same creative level, never elicited the same response? And that feeling never goes away. I get something published, or win a contest, and it feels great but I can never escape that thought of, what do I do next? What if this is my last success? In college a friend and I once talked about Van Gogh’s suicide–always a cheerful topic–and she said, “I believe he shot himself because he’d completely run out of ideas.” I thought, oh, if that were true I’d shoot myself at least three times a week.

Something else I think about, though, is that knowing what pareidolia is, and seeing examples of it, has probably caused me to see it even more. Creativity can actually feed off itself, and even if I didn’t come up with something on my own I can be inspired by the ideas of others. The article even says, “spending time looking at ambiguous figures ‘primes’ a creative mindset, inducing people to think with more fluency, flexibility, and originality.” Creativity is like a muscle. It can be strengthened through use.

The wooden fence in our backyard is really old and the knots are starting to wear down and disappear so to get that picture I had to look really hard for some that still look like eyes. So anyway there’s my workout for the day.

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  1. mydangblog

    I didn’t know there was a name for it or that not everyone could see faces in literally everything! My favourite faces are the ones in transport truck cabs—sunglasses and huge grins. There’s also a terrified badger in the pine floor of my bathroom!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s surprising to me too that not everyone experiences pareidolia. I keep using the term because I love that there’s a term for it. And of course for me it’s not just seeing faces. I’ll pick up a sock and carry on a conversation with it.


    I think you can legitimately call yourself creative, Chris, and I don’t think I’m seeing things.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The one benefit of worrying over whether I can “legitimately” call myself creative is it spurs me to be more creative. For instance I could spend a lot of time contemplating what it means to be “legitimately creative”.


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