Jenifer’s Journal: Confessions of a pareidoliac


Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness.’ – Allen Ginsberg

Spoiler Alert! I’m about to emerge from the closet: I’m a pareidoliac. I didn’t know what it was called until a few months ago, but I’m it. Webster’s says pareidolia is “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Depending on what site you’re on, it’s either considered a disorder or a talent. Examples of it run the gamut from what people make of Rorschach inkblots to seeing cloud creatures in the sky to finding the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich. But it’s only the most recently identified peculiarity amidst a legion of my own personal idiosyncrasies. Let’s call them “quirks,” it’s shorter. My kids’ favorite is the one they call my “coin religion” that dates from when they left for college. After every visit to them, before I left, I’d leave a coin or two on a window sill, or in the back of a bureau drawer. I thought I was being very sneaky — but of course my kids knew exactly what I was up to and regarded my behavior as somewhere between horrifying and hilarious.

Quirks seem to live kind of on the middle of a continuum. At one end, there are those annoying-to-bad habits like nail biting, chronic tardiness, stress-eating, constant device-checking, smoking, etc. and, on the other end, those bizarre behaviors that qualify as obsessive-compulsive. (No worries: for the duration of COVID, obsessive hand-washing doesn’t count). For the most part, quirks seem to be pretty benign. Some can be “caught” from your peers or family, like holding your breath past graveyards or lifting your feet off the car floor when going over train tracks. They seem to be first cousins to old superstitions like not walking under ladders and the classic “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

But then there are those thrillingly individual quirks that speak to the tireless ingenuity of the human mind. Like the young woman who would add a mile or two to her journey just to avoid making right turns or the man who only puts stamps on the left side of the envelope. A veritable treasure trove of quirks await if you Google “sports superstitions.” It’s not just Tiger and his red shirts. The thing is, everybody has a least a quirk or two, but few admit to them, or so I came to learn several years ago when I made a decidedly quirky attempt to research “quirks” for a book I was planning to write. I sent out cover letters and questionnaires asking the recipients to — anonymously, mind you — describe their personal idiosyncrasies. Of the 100 self-addressed-stamped-envelopes I sent out (does “grandiosity” qualifies as a quirk?), I received four responses back; two were from my kids.

I suspect it wasn’t a dearth of quirks that accounted for that lackluster response; quite the opposite. -But I guess most people aren’t quite comfortable sharing their private predilections. Since then, somebody has been clever enough to dump the high-toned pseudo-scientific approach and publish a simple list of 500 quirks. Brilliant. You can have a field day seeing if some of yours are listed, but soon it should become apparent to you that, as with snowflakes, the varieties of quirks are virtually infinite. Except we know where snowflakes come from. Quirks are more mysterious. They seem to emerge as some kind of coping mechanism or way to influence otherwise unforeseen and uncontrollable outside circumstances, the outcome of a contest, for instance, or the safety of loved ones far away, or just the anxiety of living in an increasingly complicated world. 

In her article on the Forbes website, “6 Quirky Personality Traits That Are Linked To Success,” Alice G. Walton says,

“…we shouldn’t try to stamp out our quirks too much — rather, we should learn to peaceably coexist with them.

Research is increasingly showing what many of us know intuitively: That there’s often a lot of value in our weirdnesses. Even traits that are mostly thought of as negative can provide benefit, either because they’re correlated with other, more positive traits or because there’s inherent benefit in the “negative” trait itself. Introversion and neuroticism are great examples of this, but even having ADHD or going through painful life circumstances can ultimately push us in good ways. [For instance] in school and in business, introverts are often overlooked or under appreciated, especially in relation to the more obvious presence of the extrovert. But in reality, some of the greatest minds of all time have been introverts…”

See? Love your quirks. They’re further evidence that we belong to an endlessly fascinating species, and, in themselves, can even be beneficial and effective sometimes. Seriously, who knows how many maternal backs may have been spared?