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Pareidolia, Apophenia, and Escapism: A Sasquatch Behind Every Tree

By Brian Woods

If you’ve spent much time as a visitor or member of any of the countless Bigfoot-related social media groups, you’ve likely noticed that there is no shortage of photos and images being shared and discussed, purporting to show a sasquatch, in various states of pose and activity. The quality of the images generally leave much to be desired, replete with degradations of pixel, aspect, and context. As you have likely seen, the effect is polarizing among the varying levels of support and criticism. The conversation can get ugly.

Online bigfooting communities tend to divide themselves up into different factions, and critical or constructive commentary can take a back seat to placating friends, indulging wild imaginations, and questionable agendas. There’s nothing wrong with taking as many photos as you can while you’re out conducting research, of course. The problem arises when it's decided that the unquestioning support of like-minded people is akin to legitimacy, and offense is taken to questions and attempts to examine what is presented as evidence. In some bigfooting circles, to question is to be labeled a troll, a non-believer, a troublemaker. There are currently a few infamous characters in the bigfoot community that almost demand a cultish and unquestioning adherence to their explanations, theories, and claims. If we are only looking for entertainment or a social connection from these bigfoot-related groups, we may not recognize, or even be concerned with, a few important concepts that might be at work. Let’s talk about what might be going on with those “blobsquatch” photos that pop up everywhere.

It’s natural for our brains to try to find patterns, especially faces, in seemingly random visual arrangements and in nature. In fact, when we are infants, being able to recognize a human face is indication of a healthy fusiform gyrus, which is the area of our brains that is tasked with that very job. Even when there’s not actually a face to be found in what the eye sees, this is also a completely natural occurrence.

You’ve probably heard the term pareidolia, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” As already mentioned, it’s a natural occurrence, and it’s just one of the things that happens in our brains as we navigate, assess, and categorize the world around us.

Apophenia is another term that you should be familiar with. Merriam-Webster gives us this definition: “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).” If pareidolia is the experience of thinking that a piece of burned toast looks like the face of Jesus, believing that the image is connected to other unrelated things and was sent to you as a sign or message is likely apophenia. On the same token, believing that a series of mysterious or uncommon experiences in the woods simply must be connected, in the absence of any honest attempt to find alternate explanation, also implies apophenia.

This is not the same thing as intentionally suspending your disbelief while watching a magic show or other forms of entertainment. That’s more of an example of escapism, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine”. Who doesn’t enjoy a little mystery, adventure, and intrigue from time to time? This, frankly, is why there will always be Bigfoot merchandise, television shows, and spooky stories told around campfires. It's fun!

But here’s the thing: If our inquiry is satisfied by accepting explanations that never challenge our predispositions or belief systems, can we honestly call ourselves “researchers”? If every blurry photo, adorned with red circles, is to be regarded as genuine evidence without question, and if we are allowing semi-celebrities, aspiring cult leaders, and self-proclaimed “experts” to routinely move the goal posts of what is considered “evidence” in order to sell merchandise, acquire “likes”, and feed egos, we are no longer honestly investigating or researching anything. We’re engaging in escapism, which is fine, as long as we acknowledge it as such, and recognize that there's a long divide between being entertained, and fulfilling the burden of proof that scientific recognition requires.

If you intend to photograph an interesting find or occurrence, there are a few simple things you can do that will help the viewer get a better understanding of the context. Photos from different angles and distances, along with a sense of size, scale, depth, height, etc., become vital references when time has passed, and memories are fuzzy. What was the terrain and surrounding area like? How was the weather? Can you return to the area where the photo was taken? Always keep an original copy of the image safe, for future referencing. Also, try to crop, zoom, enhance, and modify your photos AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. The more you modify your original images, the more you open yourself up to the criticism that you have manipulated data, rather than collected and documented it. Finally, be honest with yourself. If the photo isn't any good, acknowledge it, and move on. An attention-grabbing story that accompanies your photo may be exciting to recount to others, but it can't make a low quality image better than what it is. This is why your methodical fieldwork can be so important. What may seem trivial might end up being what helps you either consider an image something special, or the natural workings of the human brain, seeing things that aren't necessarily there.

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