What makes us believe certain things, see certain things, be they a face in the rock or a shape in the clouds?
I was in a boat in the Gulf of Thailand, with several other travellers and a few Thais. We passed beneath a rocky outcrop on a small island just off the coast of Kho Phangan and all I could see as we slowly passed by was a face looking down at me. I asked the local guide if they had a name for it. It turns out they don’t and he couldn’t even see what I was talking about. Was I the only one who could see it? Was I seeing what I wanted to see?
It turns out that we have an inbuilt mechanism in our brains that seeks out patterns. From the earliest hominids on the plains of Africa we have evolved to recognise patterns.
As Shermer asks — is the grass beside you moving because of the wind, or is it a predator about to strike. Split second decisions are required and having a brain wired to see patterns means you can act quickly. For survival it’s obviously better to assume the grass is moving because some large hungry beast is thinking of dining on your tasty carcass — even if you’re wrong.
However there is such as thing as taking it too far. Some of us see too many patterns and in the end, we believe everything has meaning, everybody looking at us has some ulterior motive. Everybody is a predator. We start to believe in invisible beings, souls spirits, ghosts, gods, aliens and so on.
So how does this relate to the face in the rock I’m sure I saw?
“Faces are easy to see because we have an additional evolved facial recognition software in our temporal lobes,” said Shermer.
Perhaps I wanted to see a face in the rock — after all I was even asking if it had a name. Perhaps it was my temporal lobe doing what it does best and helping make my world a little more familiar.