My husband and I were sitting on the deck as late afternoon clouds rolled in. I glanced up and chuckled. “It looks like Batman is coming to visit,” I said.
Sure enough the cloud formation seemed to have two pointy ears, Batman costume style. At another glance, the formation looked like a kitty cat. There’s a word for this.
According to Psychology Today, humans who tend “to interpret random patterns as meaningful” are experiencing apophenia. If you do this visually (say you think tea leaves in the bottom of your cup look like a dollar sign), you are experiencing pareidolia, a form of apophenia.
This is nothing new, although most of us no longer buy into ideas that clouds are sending us signals as many believed in ancient times. Even major faiths like Christianity perceived clouds as linked to the divine—Jesus Christ is supposed to come to us in clouds, according to the New Testament.
Long before Christianity, ancients in many different cultures saw omens in the sky and in nature in general. In the US South, it is still not uncommon to find older people who believe in omens, sometimes colloquially called “tokens”.
In 2009 Amar Annus led a seminar at the University of Chicago. The seminar was titled “Science and Superstition: Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World”. Annus quoted a report by the late journalist/anthropologist Lady Ethel Stefana Drower:
“In the secret lore of the Mandaean priests, the tradition of omen interpretation persisted orally until modern times, and only some parts of it were written. A Mandaean priest in Ahwaz, speaking of the secret knowledge transmitted from priest to priest, once vaunted this knowledge to Lady Drower as follows:
“If a raven croaks in a certain burj (= astrological house) I understand what it says, also the meaning when the fire crackles or the door creaks. When the sky is cloudy and there are shapes in the sky resembling a mare or a sheep, I can read their significance and message. When the moon is darkened by an eclipse, I understand the portent: when a dust-cloud arises, black, red, or white, I read these signs, and all this according to the hours and the aspects” (Drower 1937: 5).”
It doesn’t take a genius to see parallels in apophenia and works by poets, visual artists, and musicians. Psychology Today sees the connection:
“Apophenia and pareidolia can be a boon to artists, whether visual or musical, when visual stimuli result in inspiration: Shadows suggest a nude. A birdsong can inspire a melody or machinery a composition by Philip Glass. Apophenia helps us to appreciate puns and clever turns of phrase. His playing with pareidolia is what makes some of Salvador Dali’s paintings so magical.”
As a child, I spent many summer afternoons gazing at clouds, coming up with all manner of shapes and forms in the sky above. I play this game with my granddaughter, asking her what she sees in the sky and she comes up with some big surprises at times. When she was around two years old, we saw some interesting clouds and she decided they looked like baby hawks. She promptly came up with her own song titled, “Baby Hawk.” A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing.
Nature provides a wealth of resources that can inspire us, and we don’t have to be artists to experience it. As for my Batman in the sky, my husband had to shift his position to see it, and before we knew it, the clouds had shifted and there was no discernible pattern left. Still, it was a neat moment of many such moments we experience when we have afternoon coffee out back, pushing the day’s cares aside as evening arrives.
For the creative, apophenia is a blessing.
(Kay B. Day/Sept. 2, 2020)