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Creativity, Pareidolia & Finding Patterns- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity, Pareidolia & Finding Patterns- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity, Pareidolia & Finding Patterns


This post is about the art of seeing what is not there.

As we have mentioned in several recent blog posts, we have been playing online word games as one of many coping mechanisms during the pandemic.

We’ve found there are certain words rejected by the online game software, even though we know they are words. They tend to be proper names or words that are borrowed from other languages or specialized fields like medicine, physics or mathematics, like Elvis or bavette or vagal. 

What if we reversed this process?

Instead of starting with words we know and seeing if the game accepts them, start with combinations of letters and see if the game recognizes them as words even if we don’t.


The Adjacent Possible Of Words


Having symmetric turns of mind, we began trying letter combinations that sound like they should be words, even though we’re not familiar with them. It is kind of the adjacent possible of words.

Not surprisingly, most of them don’t work, but once in a while we encounter a fortuitous addition to our vocabulary. Photic was one such word, a wild lunge in alphabet space.

It means “relating to light.” A photic zone in the ocean is the top layer of water where light filters down as seen in the kelp forest below.





A recent word and concept that appeared in our local news is pareidolia, which connects to our experience with word games in that it is a word we’ve never heard before but might have stumbled onto doing exercises in letter combinatorics.

This word describes in medical terminology the human tendency to find patterns in experiences or sensations where there are none.

An example would be listening to a burbling stream long enough until one starts hearing voices in it, a perplexing and slightly unsettling phenomenon that is quite common.

Or it could be guessing that a certain combination of letters is actually a word while playing word games.


Mountain brook


The Dark Watchers Of Big Sur


One possible example of pareidolia pertains to the legend of the Dark Watchers of Big Sur, shadowy figures that are said to appear on ridge lines and then disappear quickly when approached.

They were part of John Steinbeck’s short story Flight, about a teenage boy who commits murder and flees into the Big Sur backcountry, a rough and steep landscape that is the most folded landscape on Earth by some measures.


Big Sur Ridgeline


The Dark Watchers may be supernatural human forms, or they may also be light filtered through distant trees and projected onto fog curling over ridge tops near sunrise or sunset.

I have personally seen many rocks and bushes masquerading as air bears while backpacking, stumbling along with fatigue for a late arrival into camp.

Weariness does strange things to one’s perceptions. I heard armies of bears as a windstorm roared through the pines above our camp outside of Yosemite.

Other optical, or should I say photic, phenomena have similar effects.

A similar effect is the rippling light associated with some solar eclipses, as the sunlight filters unevenly through the mountains of the lunar landscape at the point when the main disk of the sun is obscured by the main body of the moon, leaving only the mountains to be highlighted by the sun.


Galileo, Art & Discovery


There is an artistic connection here: It was patterns of light and dark on the lunar surface itself that inspired Galileo Galilei to postulate that there were mountains on the moon as he gazed through his first primitive telescopes.

He was familiar with shadows and projections of three-dimensional objects onto two-dimensional depictions because of his extensive experience as an artist. 


Moon Drawings- Galileo

Moon Drawings- Galileo


I submit to you that seeing patterns where there are none is associated with both survival and creativity.

Inferred patterns are valuable when the cost of being wrong is far less than the cost of being right.

If you can jump to a conclusion faster than a saber-toothed tiger can jump to a meal, you get to live another day. If there was no tiger after all, your legs might be tired but you are alive and well. 


Sabre-toothed Tiger (museum replica)


Creativity and pareidolia go hand in hand.

When a painter activates a canvas by spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness mark-making, we are not creating a specific pattern nor a planned composition. Automatic drawing or mark-making is not sketching!

We can use our innate pattern recognition to turn that starting nucleus of creativity into something astonishing. 

With gratitude from my studio to yours,



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