This year we have experienced a total eclipse, extremely destructive hurricanes and massive wild fires that many people associate with God’s judgement. Human beings often view all phenomena through a religious lens.
An aspect of this is frequent discoveries of miraculous religious images in natural phenomena like this one that described a Houston family that noticed an image of Jesus in the mold around their bathtub. As examples, I have included Jesus images in Cheetos, clothing irons, grilled sandwiches, window oxidation, bananas, candy bars, and of course, cloud formations. My purpose here is not to diminish the validity of these spiritual encounters. Faith is about our interior response to external stimuli and not necessarily about the images themselves. My goal is to explain how that happens so often and how great artists capitalize upon it.
Remember when you were a child lying under a blue sky with billowing clouds? You and your best friend spent the afternoon picking out the elephants and clowns. Or maybe you spent the times just before sleep lying in bed discovering pictures in the water stains or textures on the ceiling in the half-light? Human imaginations are fertile. We are richly endowed with the ability to organize vague information into meaning.
Psychologists have been studying perception for almost 200 years. They noted that people around the world will read ambiguous shapes as images but that those representations will be understood in relation to their own cultures.
Psychologists postulate that this capability is a necessary adaptation for survival. In describing the different ways we structure, identify, and interpret sensory information they suggest that each of these organizational principles had adaptive benefits. Whenever we recognize that a person in profile is the same person as someone facing us we are experiencing constancy. When we see patterns (whether they are intended or not) the Law of Closure and other grouping tendencies are responsible. Contrast in light/dark, bright/dull colors, fast/slow, warm/cool, loud/soft, etc. etc. can also establish associations that lead to meaning.
As important as these aspects of perceptual organization are the effects of experience, motivation, and expectation. As human beings (and I suspect other creatures as well) we organize information based on
- Experience: interpret what we see based on what we have learned before. The way we organize information begins at birth and then as we learn from life we begin to apply our experiences to subsequent inputs.
- Motivation: interpret what we see based on what we want to see. For instance, if you are on one side of an issue, you tend to see everything in that category as supporting your position.
- Expectation: interpret what we see based on what we expect to see. If you have decided that someone is a jerk, then everything they do is interpreted in that way. If you know that apples are red and the context is realistic, you will tend to see them as red even if they aren’t.
Psychology (and certainly the ways we interpret information) is about how we decipher experience. Perception is just that. I would explain all of these images as examples of people seeing what they want to see and using contrast to create shapes. And why not? If these sightings are understood as miracles they enhance believer’s experience of their faith? Life is more full with enriched perception.
These images are so startling because they remove context (they are not in religious circumstances) but they rest on someone recognizing them and setting up the expectation in others. I would argue that the first viewers were receptive to organizing the images in that way based on their experiences or desires.
What does this Mean for Artists?