Voynich word of the day: pareidolia

One thing I’ve noticed about people with an interest in the Voynich Manuscript is that they often have logophilia (a love of words), particularly manifesting itself as a passion for etymology (the histories [both real and imagined] coiled up inside words), for the consonance and dissonance of word and letter patterns, and for the child-like joy of finding the perfect word – a key to fit the lock of the world. Perhaps Voynich research somehow manages to tick all these boxes?

Anyway, here’s your perfect Voynich word for today: pareidolia, which I would describe as being the delusional antipattern the human mind is tempted to succumb to when it sees something astonishing in basically the wrong place – such as Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun, Jesus Christ in a tortilla (1978), or the 2007 “monkey tree phenomenon” in Singapore.

People flock to see these (particularly religious pareidolia), and collectors even buy & sell them on eBay. The Internet has some fantastic collections of pareidolia photographs (and bizarre stories), such as on the Skeptic’s Dictionary site, The Folklorist site, and this Pope Tart site (yes, really).

In the context of this blog, I think it is quite clear that most visual interpretations of the Voynich Manuscript (and I’m particularly thinking about its curiously-structured herbal pages here) are “pareidolic”, manifesting the basic human need to find meaning in whatever it looks at.

And so if you look long enough (hours? weeks? years?) at anything, the danger is that you’ll start to mis-see meaning in it. The paradox here is that long-term researchers (such as myself) surely become unable to tell whether they are extremely expert or extremely deluded, if not indeed both at the same time. Are they deluded as to their expertise, or experts in their delusion?

This whole thing can also be viewed as one of “semantically irregular verbs”:-

  • I am an expert
  • You (singular) are a bit confused
  • He/she is deluded
  • We agree to differ
  • You (plural) have somewhat lost the plot
  • They are completely bonkers

On the bright side, there’s an even more unnerving mental phenomenon called apophenia, which is where you see patterns in palpably random data (at which point I normally insert a reference to Mark Romanek’s 1978 film “Static”, which of course I wish I had made). Contemporary writers (like Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, Alan Moore, etc bleedin’ etc) enjoy apophenia as a motif, perhaps because it is based on a peculiarly kind of desperate desire to find meaning anywhere in the world, where even pareidolic places aren’t quite implausible enough.

In this sense, then, I think Newbold’s quest to find meaning within the random craquelure of the Voynichese quillstrokes is something closer to apophenia than to pareidolia. Other Voynich theories based at the level of stroke decomposition (like the gloriously over-detailed one from Ursula Papke that used to be at ms408.com, and where the “meaning” is read off from each stroke of the letter) may well also be apophenic.

One Comment

  1. avatar Lew June 24, 2008 3:44 pm

    Apophenia reminds me of the Kuleshov effect, an expriament in film editing. To swipe from Wikipedia, “Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of (an) expressionless face was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, an old woman’s coffin) . . . the audience “raved about the acting…. the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

    The implication is that viewers brought their own emotional reactions to this sequence of images, and then moreover attributed those reactions to the actor, investing his impassive face with their own feelings.

    Certainly anyone who’s spent time and effort to decrypt the Voynich Manuscript is going to have a deep personal investment in it, and that would surely color their perception of what they beleive they see in it.

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