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Created: May 19, 2009
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bridging science
and parascience

Here's a scenario for you: several families get together for a birthday party for one couple's ten year old daughter. They all meet at Chuck E. Cheese's on a Saturday afternoon. Although the place is mobbed they still manage to find the "party room" they reserved and everyone sits down to pizza. After a bit the kids all split off to play any and all of the hundreds of video games while the adults sit around the table for chitchat. All of a sudden, one parent gets up and heads out of the room saying something happened to her Little Ricky (or whomever), and, lo and behold, five minutes later that parent returns with her child, who has a bruised knee. "I heard him crying," she'd say. Across a crowded room. Under noise conditions that would overwhelm a dance club.

Most parents know how real this scenario is. Most single people (non-parents) who spend a lot of time with parents do too, and almost everyone has a similar anecdote in which a person they knew (or they themselves) was able to hear and recognize the sound of an individual voice or "cry" over an oppressive amount of ambient noise.

Optical illusion

This, I would like to point out, is also "matrixing."

Matrixing isn't quite the valid phenomena other paranormal investigators would have us believe. First, try to Google the term. You find it referenced in scores of websites devoted to paranormal pursuits, so try adding "psychology" as a search term to filter down to some more legitimate results. More paranormal sites come up. Try Wikipedia and nothing comes up! So, is matrixing real and scientifically recognized, or was it made up? Probably the latter. Science usually refers to the phenomenon as "apophenia" or "pareidolia."

TAPS claims (paraphrased) "matrixing" is the ability to interpret meaningful patterns from meaningless data. Perhaps ironically, skeptic Michael Shermer makes the same claim using the droll term "patternicity." Either term - or the "scientific" ones - recognizes the fact that the human brain can take sensory data and make whatever it wants with it - even to the point of seeing a bunny in a cloud formation or Jesus on a piece of toast. But neither "matrixing" nor "patternicity" are valid arguments for dismissing or debunking paranormal claims.

Here are some interesting facts to chew on:

  •   All sensory input is nothing more than a mass of interconnected patterns of data our brains assemble to form "ideas."
  •   Intelligence can be defined as nothing more than the speed and accuracy with which an individual can recognize, predict, create, or replicate patterns in data.
  •   Every person processes information differently (although the differences may be slight), so each individual's perception of any object or condition may be slightly (or moreso) different from any other's perception of the exact same object.
  •   Humans can (and do, without necessarily even being aware of the fact) automatically filter out much of the data our brains receive.
  •   Most of us have learned to ignore certain aspects of the process of data collection. We "perceive" from our environment only "ideas," through the filters of our personal paradigms and mindsets, but fail to recognize that these ideas are not necessarily "real."

All sensory input is nothing more than a mass of interconnected patterns our brains assemble to form "ideas." When we look in the refrigerator and see an apple, we aren't actually receiving a complete image of an apple. What is really happening is light is bouncing off the apple, that light is focused on photosensitive cells in our eyes, which transmits electrochemical impulses to our brain, which then compares the pattern of impulses to previously experienced patterns. Then and only then do we perceive "apple." We operate very much like a television in this regard. The data is transmitted, received, and organized according to mechanical processes. What we do with that data, however, is what separates us from machines. A television doesn't care about "apple." It's internal mechanisms are designed so that it will project the data onto a screen for us in an organized fashion. We, however, have extra processes. After we organize the data we receive, we weight the relative value according to our needs and wants. Have you ever looked into your refrigerator for a gallon of milk or whatever - something completely unrelated to some other item (that is also in there) - without noticing that other item? It was there, you received the visual data for that object, and your brain recognized that item based on previous experiences with it, ruled that that item wasn't "milk," so it completely ignored it for you.

soldier close-up

And it is this process that makes us "intelligent." Not only are we able to perceive the objects we see, but we are able to process that information according to its value to us at any given moment. Further, we are able to filter out extraneous data, and see past it to underlying patterns, or form complete patterns from otherwise partial inputs. Go back to the "milk" example for a moment. A gallon of milk on the counter is easy to recognize because you have the whole image in front of you. In the refrigerator, however, that same gallon of milk is likely to be partially obscured, and most of us would still be able to identify it for what it is without moving other items out of the way to see the milk in its entirety. Now lets say that that milk was left out on the porch for some reason, and there is a screen door between you and the container. The image would also be obscured, but still recognizable to most of us for what it actually is.

This ability to "complete the picture" isn't just limited to sensory input. We can also use it to predict series of events. If I give you the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 and ask you to tell me what comes next, could you do it? Probably, because that's a very basic pattern. What if I gave you the numbers 2, 4, 8, 16? Most will instantly recognize 32 as the likely next number. How about 2, 8, 4, 64, 32. How many would know the next number should be 32,768? Some of you instantly could calculate that number, some of you would take a bit to come up with it on your own, some would only see the pattern (cubed, halved, cubed, halved, repeating) after it was explained to them, and some would never see the pattern at all. This is the difference between someone with higher relative intelligence and those who have less. The pattern exists, whether anyone can see it or not. Some do see it, some can be taught to see it, and some will never see it.

But that's just a series of logical progressions. Logic doesn't always play a clear part in what we perceive. Take music, for example. The musical soundtracks of modern movies are deliberately constructed so that certain thematic elements are played at the same time certain events occur. In the movie "Star Wars," few of us would fail to recognize the "Empire" theme when we hear it, but how many of us consciously recognize that the scene is about to change to an "Empire" perspective within moments of a score-shift to that theme? It happens nonetheless. The soundtrack was deliberately constructed with lead-ins such as this, as are most soundtracks. Some, however, have much more subtle thematic variations. Further, themes can be divided into subthemes to also reflect emotional significances to individual characters, locations, or events. It can get very complex, and a different kind of intelligence is required to pick up these variations without some kind of prompting or learning curve.

The fact remains, however, that there are patterns in art that cannot be directly observed logically. They are linked to emotions. In film, they are more easily observed than in life because they are deliberately included by humans to induce specific reactions in an audience. But let us continue with the "soundtrack example" for a moment. Does a theme modified to be played in the scale of A flat always produce the same feelings in each individual who hears it? It may do so in most, but not all. Similarly, in poetry individual works can have very different meanings from reader to reader. Even if a reader's response is diametrically opposed to the intent of the author, that does not automatically invalidate the reader's response. A person with a deathly fear of the unknown will respond to Robert Frost's "The Road Less Taken" very differently than someone who doesn't have that fear. Reactions on emotional levels cannot be ignored simply because science can't quantify them. What if the overwhelming majority of people had that same fear, including those analyzing the poem? The fear would be the norm, and intrinsic to any attempt to quantify the reaction to the poem. And this happens any time science examines any subject: the preconceived notions (world-views, or paradigms) of the experimentor are not always obvious, and are inextricably linked to both the process of experimentation and any conclusions drawn from it.

pancake "Jesus"

No human can escape from this. It's programmed in. Science operates on the preconceived notion that all effects have a cause, even though this is logically untrue: we exist, and somewhere and some when, the molecules and atoms and subatomic particles that make us up came into existence without cause. You can approach this problem from any perspective, and modern science will always fail to answer it. Everything around you came into existance - it began - in one form or other, or it has always been here. Either way, it's an effect without a cause, and any attempt to define a cause (Big Bang, whatever) legitimizes a premise in which it could happen again and again, anywhere and anywhen, which would directly violate one of the stated Laws of Physics ("In a closed system, matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed," even though "everything that exists" fits the definition of "a closed system").

Science, however, can overlook this statement. It has to, or its discoveries are proven invalid. Their paradigm would collapse. This is an extreme example, but similar "oversights" happen all the time whether we are aware of them or not. Go back to the top where I spoke of the milk in the refrigerator. Everyone has moments like this, where something that is there is overlooked - "unobserved" - solely because it isn't the object sought. The biggest problem this presents is that if you don't know it's there, you may not look for it. To a person who attaches an emotional significance to the image of Jesus, finding such image in the scorch marks on a piece of toast would have a radically different impact than it would to an out and out atheist. Someone who genuinely believes that Jesus is in Heaven and can and would make his presence known by deliberately creating his image on toast could reasonably conclude that that toast was a validation of his paradigm. Further, he would also be more likely to even see such an image, because it is an accepted possibility for his world-view. Skeptics can scoff all they want. For that individual, the event is real. Attributing it to "matrixing" is nothing more than an unsupported assertion that one paradigm is more valid than the other. If you cannot debunk the event itself, applying "matrixing" as a cause is actually a cop-out. True debunking would mean testing and retesting the toaster, to see what could have caused the image to appear. Not having been there as it occurred, however, will always leave the possibility that the toast-image's formation was a true and singular paranormal event. Proper debunking would be to apply the label "induplicable event" to the issue, or "unsupportable." The bottom line here is that if there is more than one possible cause (irrespective of paradigm) for the same event and neither can be disproved, then neither cause can be put forward as "truth."

poptart "Mary"

This all leads to some questions: is the image of Jesus on toast real at all? and was it formed through unknown processes?

First, is it real? The scorch-marks are there, but if Jesus isn't part of your world-view, it might be very difficult for you to recognize a semblance of His image. Like music or poetry, the "idea" of Jesus illicits very different emotional responses among those who view the toast. Some will see it, some won't ever see it, and some can be taught to see it. None, however, will be able to deny that there is a scorch. You can only deny the resemblance, which is nothing more than a personal perspective. Now, how did it get there? Chance comes immediately to mind for many. Even if the toaster's heating elements somehow physically shifted to produce that image every time, however, the "believer" would still be able to say that that shift (or the image) was produced Divinely. And that will always be a problem when attempting to address any allegedly paranormal event: every aspect, observation, feeling, or conclusion regarding anything that happens or exists around us is always matrixed into our brains through our senses and filtered through our preconceived notions. Somewhere, someone might believe the bunny he sees in the clouds right now is a real live flying rabbit. You can tell him he's wrong based on your own paradigm and past experience, but to prove him wrong, you'd have to fly up there and test the object with mutually agreed-upon pre-established criteria defining bunny-hood. Anything else is just an assertion. You can't tell him he's "matrixed" something that isn't really there because those who don't believe the bunny is real have "matrixed" that truth themselves as well. "Matrixing" is how humans process reality. To tell someone he's matrixed something false into his reality is severely flawed logic, because for you to disagree with him or her means you've matrixed the possibility of its reality out of your own. Without conclusive testing, the only reasonable assertion you can make is that that individual's allegation is "unsupported."

So, back to the scenario I led off with: it's an anecdotally repeated claim that some people can pluck out very real and specific patterns (like the sound of one's own child's cry) from seriously distorted and confused data input. This is an immensely powerful thing to claim. It is scientifically implausible to believe it happens at all, much less through the parent's identification of the cry, and yet it is reported, over and over again. It may fail controlled lab testing for whatever reason, but that doesn't invalidate the anecdotes. In fact, the weight of the evidence would suggest if there's a flaw anywhere, it would have to be in the methodology of the testing! Assuming, of course, that the parent was accurate when he or she claimed that it was the child's cry that caught his or her attention. What if, instead, it was a sensed emotion that was detected, and the pain of an injured knee was matrixed into the more objective notion of "sound?" What if the "idea" of "my child is suffering pain" came through his or her filters and registered as the more identifiable "idea" of the sound of the child's cry? Would the parent even be aware of the difference?

These would be some very interesting questions to ask. And, to test. If it could be demonstrated that the emotion was perceived by the parent as if it were through any of the more accepted senses, we could reasonably hypothesize a fascinating framework through which Mediumship might work. But that's a deep enough subject for an article of its own!

Spinning dancer illusion

In all fairness to Mr. Shermer, TAPS, et al, using pareidolia (under any of its various nicknames) as a debunking tool has been around for a very long time. More importantly, when they say someone's "matrixed something" into existence, they are absolutely correct - but fail to point out that this is the nature of personal reality. Everything a person observes is "matrixed" into reality from computeresque streams of data - some more complete than others. To tell someone "you're just imagining" this or that is always true. The problem is that it is equally true that if you don't see, hear, smell, etc., something that another has reported, you have imagined that reality as well.

And a final note: certain observations can easily be observed in two distinctly different ways. A widely circulated "spinning dancer" illusion (© Nobuyuki Kayahara) is an excellent example. People can observe the direction of her rotation as either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Only one direction is "true," however. If she didn't rise and fall, you could use her shadow to positively assert one direction over the other. However, because of the dancer's unusual motion, you would need to test such things as angles of reflection from both perceptions before it would be reasonable to draw a scientifically viable conclusion.

From the evidence in the image, however, she is most likely rotating counter-clockwise.