Pareidolia – Why do we see faces in places?

Posted on July 16, 2013

Let’s see things clearly…

I’ve been asked relatively frequently about pareidolia recently, mainly from people who are already seemingly familiar with the word before they visit faceinaplace.com. More often than not the opening statement usually goes something like this…. “aha ‘pareidolia’,that’s when people think they see Jesus in a slice of cheesecake”, on one occasion it was even…”I saw Michael Jackson in a dog turd once”.

My original response was to casually agree, nod my head and accept that founding the website faceinaplace.com would inevitably lead to our audience bridging the obvious connection between the site and pareidolia whilst at the same time missing the broader meanings and explanations for an obvious yet little known phenomenon.

So, what is pareidolia then?

The fact is that pareidolia isn’t simply the seeing of faces in any inanimate object, it also covers a much broader spectrum of random stimulus ranging through vision and sound, from the stereotypical child recognising animals in cloud formations, to the almost sinister willingness to discover hidden Satanic verses in musical records when played in reverse.

The phrase pareidolia itself originates from the Greek words para & eidōlon meaning ‘faulty, wrong or instead’ and ‘image, form or shape’ respectively.

So there’s more than just meets the eye?

Much more, we can go back countless generations into the annuls of religious history to discover that pareidolia has been and continues to be a source of divine interpretation, perhaps rather notably is that a piece of toast resembling the face of Jesus fetched a sizeable sum at auction not so long ago.

Religious imagery is often sourced as a prime example of the subject yet there are so many more compelling explanations of these natural phenomena.

Let me quote the great Leonardo Davinci and his advice to his contemporaries, “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.” A fantastic example of just how powerful an effect pareidolia actually has on the imaginative brains of such expressive artists.

Whilst we are at this point I must gratefully give credit to 20th century Japanese palaeontologist Chonosuke Okamura who published a concise paper noting that he had discovered fossils of more than one thousand extinct “mini-species”, each less than 0.25 mm in length from the ‘Silurian period’ of miniature animals, ranging from humans, gorillas & dogs to dragons and dinosaurs. The results of his finding expressed that there has been no change in the human body since this period, except for a growth from 3.5 mm to 1,700 mm. Mr Okamura was seemingly an unfortunate victim of pareidolia and was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for his work in 1996.

So there really is science behind pareidolia then?

Absolutely! It is widely observed that humans have a natural ability to recognise faces as a survival technique. We are actually hard-wired from the day we are born to recognise human faces, even when limited features of a particular face are supplied.

Popular science author Carl Sagan hypothesised that the very nature of humans to be able to distinguish friend from foe by means of facial recognition is of critical consequence. The inability to recognise such a thing would no doubt end in a deadly outcome, this being just one of the many advantages of being able to make use of face recognition in our species.

Magnetoencephalography

In 2009 a study found that objects incidentally perceived as faces evoke an early (165 millisecond) activation in the ventral fusiform cortex, at a time and location similar to that evoked by faces, whereas other common objects do not evoke such activation. Compare this figure to the 130 milliseconds in which we are generally able to recognise real faces and we can see that pareidolia occurs relatively early in the processing stage of the brain and certainly not a reinterpretation of an already observed form.

So pareidolia really is important then?

Yes! In fact it is commonly suggested that Pareidolia, combined with Apophenia (distinguishing patterns in meaningless randomness) and hierophany (a manifestation of the sacred) may have helped early human societies organise chaos and make the world intelligible.

You may have even seen techniques based around pareidolia used to actually gain further insight into a patient’s mental state. The Rorschach inkblot test (that’s correct, the dude from Watchmen) uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state. The Rorschach is a projective test, as it intentionally elicits the thoughts or feelings of respondents which are “projected” onto the ambiguous inkblot images.

Do you have an experience of Pareidolia? Please share your comments below.

Thanks for reading

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