By now you’ve probably seen the above image of the so-called “Screaming Man” captured on a testicle scan by two Canadian researchers, and published in Urology this month. The article was meant to be humorous, and I suspect an homage to “The Case of the Haunted Scrotum”, a similar article that ran in the JRSM 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the humour was lost on the Canadian Press, whose version of the story was picked up by the CBC and ran straight.
Now granted, this recent Urology article was not as overtly amusing as its progenitor. In the Case of the Haunted Scrotum, researchers trying to figure out why a 45 year old man’s right testicle had not descended found a creepy face in his left one, and mused “if you were a right testis, would you want to share the scrotum with that?” But the dryness of the article doesn’t excuse the good journalists at the Canadian Press, or their member outlets that carried the story, from their journalistic obligations. For even if two Canadian physicians had seriously wondered whether the face was a sign from an Egyptian god, the journalists should have pointed out just why that’s really, really unlikely.
Pareidolia — the phenomenon by which we readily see identifiable information (especially faces) in vague or random images — is well established and easily the most likely cause. The face doesn’t exist on the scan, only in our cognitive machinery interpreting it. This quirk of cognition is believed to have evolutionary origins (an ability to recognize faces quickly is a useful comparative advantage on the savanna) and perhaps even special neuro-processing circuitry.
It’s not a new discovery, yet despite this, the mainstream press rarely mentions it — or indeed that there might be a cognitive cause at all. Consider last week’s article about design changes made by the Bank of Canada to our soon-to-be-released plasticized currency, in response to focus group reports of strange images in the bills. Religious symbols abounded. A transparent security window looked like a woman’s body. A strand of DNA was mistaken for either the Big Dipper or anal beads. (I only wish I were making that up). The story was meant to be light in a “people are kooky” sort of way, but some indication of why people see these things would have provided useful perspective.
And that’s important because often times people take these images quite seriously. A video of faces in the cloud formation of a gathering storm in Grand Falls, NB went viral this summer, and watching it, you can hear the videographer, startled, saying “A face…a face…holy frig!” as the images emerge.
The Toronto Star, covering the story, suggested they “morphed from what appeared to be a pig face to the face of Jesus.” While the man who captured the video didn’t provide any preternatural explanation, his wife, says the Star, “is not so quick to pass the episode off as a fluke of nature.”
“We were just looking at each other amazed,” she said. “He’s always teasing me that it’s the end of the world coming so I asked him when the storm was happening is this the message? It was pretty amazing.”
Of course, finding religious significance in such images (known as “simulacra”) is not at all uncommon. Sometimes – as in the case of the Grilled Cheese Virgin Mary, the Holy Tortilla or Our Lady of the Underpass, they’re laughable to all but the most fervent believers. Others, attract more widespread adherents.
In 1996, an irridescent image of the Virgin Mary was noticed in the window panes of a glass building in Florida — the result of water deposits and weathering from a sprinkler. This Clearwater Virgin has reportedly attracted over a million visitors.
In 2003, a similar image was spotted in a hospital window in Milton, MA, attracting 25,000 visitors in the first weekend alone. The Milton Madonna, as it was dubbed, was also the result of water damage and weathering, but that didn’t stop believers from claiming it was God’s warning for the hospital not to perform abortions. Never mind that it didn’t even have an OB unit.
The fact is, these simulacra do — even to my non-believing eyes — look like classic images of the Virgin Mary. That’s the challenge with pareidolia — you’re going to see the image whether you like it or not. If you have any doubt, just check out this great collection of 50 Things That Look Like Faces.
The important thing for skeptics is to realize what’s at play and not impute any deeper meaning to those images. They’re simply a quirk of our cognitive design. It would be nice if the Canadian media, when covering screaming testis, cloud people, and hidden images in our currency, told the public that.