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Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Things and Places

An example of Pareidolia condition (Coconut husk, looking like a face) / Photo by:Argentarius via Shutterstock

 

People see things in different ways. For instance, they may see the face of Madonna on a taco shell or look at the front of a car and think it looks like a human face smiling at them. This is what characterizes the phenomenon called pareidolia.

Pareidolia is defined by Inverse as “the perception of familiar yet meaningless patterns in random stimuli or noise.” It is a psychological occurrence wherein people perceive an unclear image or sound as something significant, Live Science says.  It comes from the two Greek words “para”, which means “faulty” or ‘wrong” and “eidolon” which is translated as “form”, “image” or “shape”.

This is the reason why people tend to see faces in objects even if they actually do not have it. According to Lenstore Vision Hub, this is why humans have the tendency to “assigning human characteristics to objects.” Although most instances of pareidolia are most about seeing visual patterns, it applies to other senses as well, like hearing sounds. For instance, when playing the song Stairway to Heaven in reverse, people may hear “My sweet Satan” in the lyrics. This kind of pareidolia is called auditory pareidolia.

This phenomenon is considered a type of apophenia or the broad term for the human inclination to see patterns in noisy data. It is said that for apophenia to happen, the data does not have to be sensory. Some patterns can be interpreted in numbers and events even though they are unrelated. For example, since the Illuminati is associated with a triangle logo, when a person sees Barack Obama form a triangle with his hands, they may come to the conclusion that he is part of the Illuminati.

 

A screw from doors, visually forming a pair of eyes / Photo by: AdiDsgn via Shutterstock

 

Why Does It Happen?

As explained in the article This Is the Evolutionary Reason We Often See Human Faces Not on Humans, these are the reasons why a person experiences pareidolia:

Survival tactic

Some scientists believed that the ancestors of humans have developed pareidolia as a way to shield themselves from predators or enemies. This can help them differentiate if someone is a friend or foe. This theory was proposed by Carl Sagan, an American cosmologist and author of the book The Demon Hunted World -- Science as Candle in the Dark. This also shows why babies prefer to look at a human face than other images.

Brain processing

It is explained that the brain is said to be arranged for massively parallel processing. This function aids the brain in filtering large amounts of information, searching for patterns and making associations.

In addition, a human’s perception is said to be an active building process. One of these processes involves perceiving an image and then going through the brain’s catalog of matches, identifying the best match then relating it to the image. For instance, a soy sauce stain may resemble a spider. As a result, the brain matches the image to a spider and supplies the lacking details to make it appear even more like a spider.

It is said that expectation is also part of this process. For instance, if a person’s friend says that a biscuit looks like a puppy, and points to its “head”, the image of a puppy’s head appears. Their brain was able to identify the pattern and the creation of that image is put in its place.

Fusiform face area (FFA)  

The fusiform face area (FFA), which is part of the visual association cortex, has functions that center on recognizing and recalling faces. The brain has the tendency to choose to see faces because of this.

 

 

Well-known Examples of Pareidolia

Based on the article written by Kim Ann Zimmerman titled Seeing Faces in Unusual Places, these are some of the most famous instances of pareidolia. Most examples provided are those connected to religion.

Virgin Mary sandwich

It was reported that a woman who saw the Virgin Mary on her grilled cheese sandwich sold it on eBay for the price of $28,000. This happened in 2004.

Shroud of Turin

In 1898, a piece of cloth was discovered to resemble Jesus Christ. Secondo Pia, an amateur photographer, was the first to notice this. Its negative image was seen on his reverse photigraphic plate and he was given permission to take a picture of it while it was displayed in the Turin Cathedral.

Mother Teresa cinnamon bun

In the Bongo Java Cafe located in Belmont, it was said that there was a cinnamon bun that had the image of Mother Teresa on it. The cinnamon bun had been on display for ten years. However, in the year 2007, someone had stolen it.

Face on Mars

In 1976, a photo taken by the Viking I orbiter showed what appeared to be a face on Mars. Some people believed that this face could have been proof of the existence of ancient civilizations that resided on Mars.

 

 

People Who Are Prone to Experiencing It

In the article Pareidolia: The Science Behind Seeing Faces in Everday Objects, it was stated that these kinds of individuals are the ones who are more likely to experience pareidolia:

People who like to believe in theories and delusions

This may be the explanation for why people claim they have seen UFOs, found the Loch Ness Monster or believe that they have spotted Elvis Presley somewhere. It may also be the reason why some individuals find unsettling messages hidden in the lyrics of songs when they are played backward.  It is said to give a psychological determination for one’s delusions.

People who are religious or are superstitious

Extremely religious people and those who are firm believers of the supernatural are more prone to finding faces in landscapes and inanimate objects reveal a study which was conducted in Finland.

People who are neurotic and have negative moods

There are researches that show that neurotic people and those who are experiencing low moods are also more inclined to see faces in objects. Since these individuals are have become hyperaware of any incoming threats, they are also more likely to see things, such as faces, that are not there.

 

Uses of Pareidolia

In the fields Art and Psychology, pareidolia is used by some professionals creatively and productively.

Psychology

To be able to diagnose patients, psychologists depend on certain psychological tests. One of the tests they give to patients is the Rorschach inkblot test, which is used to determine suppressed feelings of a person.

Art

In one of his books, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about how to use pareidolia as an artistic device. He said that wall stains may sometimes look similar to landscapes decorated with trees, valleys, and rivers. Other artists make use of this phenomenon by putting hidden images in their work like their paintings.

Experiencing pareidolia is enjoyable and can be used as a creative pastime. However, if one does not know about the brain’s tendency to look for patterns, the illusion created by an image may cause one to absorbed in delusions.

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