Feb
07
2011

What is pareidolia?

Can you see the baby or Jesus’ face? (photo from Jessica Lundgren – PD-EXP)

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of perceiving something significant from a vague or random stimulus, usually from something one sees, but also from something one hears.

We all experience it occasionally. Being the miserly sort who picks up pennies, when a circular spot on the pavement catches my eye, it triggers “coin!” in my mind, but it is almost always chewing gum. Having grown up where snakes were not too uncommon, I react to a glimpse of something curvy on the ground. When I hear a dry oak leaf scratching on the sidewalk, I still hear “rattlesnake,” although its been decades since I actually heard one.

Thinking that a cloud looks like something is a common example of pareidolia. Perhaps more common is seeing a face, be it a cloud or on a piece of toast, or in the nobs, spigot and overflow opening of a washbasin. We are very attuned to recognizing faces, so we find them everywhere.

One could say that pareidolia reverses the saying: “Seeing is believing.” We believe that we see something. Belief, in the religious sense, cues people to perceive images and symbols of their religion, not just among Christians. Reading tealeaves and coffee grounds and other forms of augury use pareidolia. In Germany, a tradition on New Year’s eve is to melt small pieces of lead and pour them in water and then make sense of the solidified lump, and hope that it suggests something good for the coming year. (Why do older teenagers always want it to look like an automobile?)

The Rorschach test is a psychological use of pareidolia.

Can you see anything but the face of Jesus in this remarkable image? I couldn’t either. In fact, I did not recognize that there were people in the photo until a website explained it. For a moment, I “got the picture,” but then lost it again, having to reread the explanation. Keep trying before you give up and scroll down for their clue.

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3 Comments

  • eiffel says:

    Human brains are very good at pattern-matching, and they sometimes find patterns where there aren’t any. If I lie down next to a babbling brook, after about half an hour I start to hear words mixed in with the water sounds.

    They say that if you listen to the same word endlessly repeated, after a while you will hear it as completely different words, although I haven’t experienced this illusion myself.

  • blogoshmear says:

    Sometimes if i listen to country music long enough i start to hear intelligence in garth brooks.

  • myoarin says:

    And today with my HP printer running for pages, it start to demand: “make love, make love, …” about 60 times per page.

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