One of the latest viral images to make its rounds through the internet has quite a few social media users legitimately creeped out or anxious, and it turns out there’s likely a scientific reason for it. The image was posted to Twitter on April 22 by user @melip0ne who goes by the handle “dumbass ass idiot.” The image depicts what appears to be an arrangement of familiar household objects with the caption “Name one thing in this photo.” Sounds easy enough, right? Try it. That’s when things get creepy, trust me.
Upon studying the image, it becomes apparent that this is no typical household junk. Not one of the objects is easily identifiable, or perhaps even identifiable at all. Everything seems like a familiar piece of household detritus, but upon looking closely at each of the objects, it becomes apparent that none of them is identifiable.
At least they're not identifiable by me, or thousands of social media users who have likewise commented about how utterly confused they are by the image. Many viewers, myself included, actually feel unsettled or anxious when looking at the image. Upon scrutinizing the objects in the image closely, one finds himself reeling back in confusion, seeing something both familiar and utterly unfamiliar at the same time. They’re like something out of H.P. Lovecraft - nameless shapes that may even now lurk in the dark places of the world.
It turns out gestalt psychology can shed some light on why the image is so creepy and unsettling. Dr. Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, told Live Science that the image is unsettling because the brain can’t stop itself from seeking familiar patterns among the objects:
I think the creepiness comes from our brains' attempts at recognizing a pattern, zeroing in on that pattern, and then having the expected pattern continually disrupted by another recognizable pattern. I swear I see a chimp in that photo. But then it becomes something else, and then something else. I can't complete the puzzle. I can get some of it, but never enough to know what I'm seeing.
Our squishy little brains are quite good at recognizing patterns or creating meaning out of the chaotic mess that is human sensory perception, allowing us to identify and recognize objects in the world around us. When gazing at this weird image from nowhere, the brain is teased with familiar “patterns” among the creepy, unrecognizable objects but ultimately finds no meaning among what it perceives. See for yourself.
I’m left to wonder: how might this same psychological phenomenon affect the study of the anomalous or unidentified? Could some of the resistance towards serious study of these phenomena stem from many people’s unconscious uneasiness with unfamiliar or unknown sensory information? More importantly: where did this picture come from? What are the objects in it? Running the photo through a reverse image search turns up 0 results; it appears to be a unique image. Is this the first glimpse of an alternate dimension or other universe?
I really want to stop looking at it but I can't.