Earlier this week I came across a fun article about how old art pieces appeared to show evidence of time travel and I thought about the work we do as lawyers.

Let me explain.

Take a look at this piece of art from the mid 1800s.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

From a distance, it looks like a girl looking at an iPhone! There’s that tell tale glow.

But let’s blow it up even further.

It’s an iPhone, right? Well, as the author of the post that originally talked about this noted, it is actually a picture of a girl clutching her prayer book on the way to church.

No doubt people in the 1800s would’ve been able to spot this immediately but our brains have been conditioned to insert something we’ve seen in our world into this old picture.

The author of the blog post repeats this exercise with another piece of art, and then another.

How could our eyes deceive us? The author suggests this is pareidolia, which is otherwise known as seeing familiar objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns. (Think of patterns in clouds in the sky.)

I actually think about the concept quite a bit in employment law and litigation.  Sometimes, when I start investigating a complaint from an employee, it feels like the individual is attempting to see patterns in unrelated conduct.

An employee might think that a co-workers fantasy football team name is actually a secret insult against them. Or that a failure to invite them out for drinks after work is blatant discrimination.

And so on.

What all of this could be is apophenia, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information.

(Caveat: Not all complaints fall within this pattern. There are obviously legitimate complaints filed every day.)

This theory has important implications in defending employment law cases.

I sometimes talk with a witness about how important it is to “connect the dots”, that is, connect pieces of information in a way that accurately portrays what happened.

In doing so, a jury or fact-finder can get an accurate picture.

But sometimes, individuals continue to believe what they think they saw.

Sometimes it’s warranted.

But other times, they’re just seeing pictures of iPhones in old art. It’s not reality but that doesn’t make their perceptions any less real.