Few thoughts on pareidolia

Pareidolia is the name given to our tendency to find significance in random stimuli – most commonly our tendency to see faces and people where there are none. Richard Wiseman’s huge collection of ghost pictures is largely a celebration of this fascinating phenomenon, and it also seemed to be a sensible – and often obvious – explanation behind a collection of ghost pictures I was shown recently as part of a documentary. Of course, for evolutionary reasons, we are hard-wired to veer towards the ‘false positive’ of seeing faces or people where there are none, as it is helpful to be over-sensitive to the presence of a possible predator. For this reason, we might mistake shadows for a burglar, but rarely a burglar for shadows. Also, it only takes a couple of dots and a line underneath for us to see a face and respond to it as one; hence the easy emotional grammar of smilies. Imagine trying to portray a church, or even a flower, or anything other than a face, with a couple of punctuation marks.

So here’s my favourite example, which a few enthusiasts amongst you might know. We see a sort of huge Jesus-face between the man and woman in the photograph, and it’s very hard to snap out of it and see the actual subject: a Victorian toddler in a white bonnet being held by her father. The vegetation in the background appears to be hair in the foreground, and we’re seduced by our evolutionary preference for seeing a face. Have a look and work it out:

Aside from how fun it is to have our minds toyed with in this way, it’s a great lesson in how this kind of thing can fool us. In this picture, we know it isn’t a ghost. Partly this is because no-one’s saying it’s a ghost, but also we understand what the real subject is supposed to be, because when we eventually work it out, we have a solid alternative figure – and a far more plausible one – looking back at us in its place. Yet, had the illusion been created not by a little girl, but by the interplay of branches, shadows, light, water ripples and so on, (which would be just as likely to happen), there’d be no clear alternative emerging figure to ‘prove’ the illusion wrong. And thus, a ghost-believer might laugh off the picture above as an optical illusion (caused by the light and shadow of a little girl) while insisting another is real evidence for the supernatural (caused by light and shadow of a noisy background).

Another point worth remembering is that out of the millions of photographs or pieces of footage taken where these illusions are present, there will naturally emerge a few which are as convincing as the one above. That has to happen – as some have to be better than others, and a few have to be the best. So just because some ghost pictures are very striking, and where the suggestion of random light and shadow forming a face might sound like the most blinkered cynicism, this does not mean you have to throw up your hands and admit a ghostly presence. It might be a ghost of course, in the same way it might be digital manipulation or a missed real-life intruder into the frame, but there’s nothing wrong with it just being one of those have-to-occur great instances of pareidolia too. Logically, there have to be some very convincing ones out there. Start with enough photographs being taken, and you’ll end up with a small number of absolute doozies.

More importantly, though, these are huge fun. Do check out Richard Wiseman’s ever-changing online collection if you haven’t already.


Complete Kant

Cathal Morrow has spent a year not telling a lie (his ‘Kantian Oath’), and his book, The Complete Kant, will be out soon. It will undoubtedly get a lot of attention, in that ‘Yes-Man’ kind of way. It looks fascinating, and can be explored and dipped into here.

On the subject of books, a favourite author of mine, Alain de Botton, has just launched his latest work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Embarrassingly, I’ve had it in my possession now for a couple of weeks, and still haven’t read it, which is a first for me when it comes to his work. It is supposed to be his finest yet. If you do not know him, his work is eclectic and whimsical, but bound by a deep and philosophical interest in everyday living. Elsewhere on this blog I have mentioned his School of Life, for which I will at some point, when I get a sodding moment, give a ‘sermon’.

Rehearsals continue, along with the biennial paranoia that the new show won’t be as good as the last one. However, it’s not all stress and panic. Andy took this picture during rehearsals a couple of days ago:


This is how hard we’re working to give you value for money. And at least you can see that we’re treating ourselves to a glamorous rehearsal space.

Right, must get on with it. No rest for the wicked.


Shriek of Araby hangs up his slippers

Some of you reading this with only a peripheral interest in magic may have read the notices that a famous and well-respected magician called Ali Bongo died today. If the name rings a bell, let me explain who Ali was, is, and will continue to be.

Firstly, as might be imagined, Ali was a legend amongst magicians and has been for decades.

As a performer, he dressed in trademark garish, mock-Oriental garb as the ‘Shriek of Araby’ (definitely riding the furthest cusp of political correctness by today’s standards) and was famous for his colourful, visual comedy magic.

As a consultant, aside from his film and musical work, and his own 1971 series Ali Bongo’s Cartoon Carnival, he was a vital force behind Paul Daniel’s unparalleled success, and David Nixon before him, and has lent his encyclopaedic expertise to probably every British magic show in memory, including mine.

As a thinker, his ideas were nothing short of brilliant. Several times I have seen him lecture for a room of magicians and floor all of us with impossible tricks which he treated so lightly; methods so devious, delicious and invisible, yet passed off with a shrug and a laugh by their extraordinary inventor.

As a man, he was always brightly yet impeccably dressed, twinkling and courteous; the very image of sprightliness, sporting his iconic thick-rimmed glasses on equally iconic thick-rimmed ears; a gentleman of the old school but effortlessly delighting in the changing face of the craft.

He was only a short way through his presidency of the Magic Circle when he died, following a stroke, at 79. The magic fraternity is often a pedantic and political place, and Ali was a rare spot of vibrancy in their ranks.

There is a rare and rather brilliant glimpse of him here:

Filming titles

Out in a very muddy part of Battersea, filming the title sequence for The Event. The kind ladles and jellyspoons have bought me the cheapest black suit from Burtons so that I don’t slop all over my nice ones. This one makes a ‘sshh’ sound as I walk.

Cary Grant, famed for his sartorial brilliance, apparently was a famous stinge and only wore cheap Burtons suits himself when off-camera. Yet, being Cary Grant, he pulled it off, and people never guessed.

When you see this sequence air, be quietly aware that the suit makes a ‘sshh’ sound and I’m wearing knee-high thermal socks.