Maybe you’ve seen an animal in the clouds on a summer’s day, a smiley in your bowl of cereal, or a face on burnt toast?
Seeing familiar objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is a psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia (/ˌpær.ɪˈdəʊl.jə/).
Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information.
Pareidolia was once considered a symptom of psychosis but is now recognized as a normal human tendency.1 We often assign human and animal characteristics to objects. Usually, this is simplified to people seeing familiar shapes, like faces, animals, cartoon characters, objects, and landscapes in random things like clouds, rock formations, shadows, nature or objects.
Why do we experience Pareidolia?
Our preception is not just based on the clues in front of us; our prior experiences strongly influence it. Pareidolia is an evolutionary remnant of our ancient survival mechanism.
A study published in the US National Library of Medicine explains that “a visual percept is inferred from often fragmentary and incomplete visual signals from the eyes through a process of unconscious inference.” 2 For example, a barely visible face emerging from the shadows can be recognized despite very little light received by the eye. The rest of the face in total darkness is inferred based on prior knowledge and expectations of what a face looks like. Illusory face detection is a common human tendency; we are particularly hardwired to see faces.
Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist, postulated that hyper facial perception results from an evolutionary need to recognize faces. In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago could not recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win their parents’ hearts, and less likely to prosper.” 3
Here’s another example.
Say you were a hunter-gatherer on the way back to your cave, walking through a rocky area where snow leopards often lurk. You notice a slight movement in the snow beside a rock. It could be the wind, but it might also be a big hungry cat. According to the evolutionary argument, the cautious ones, those who bet on it being a hungry Leopard (Type I error) and took defensive measures even though most of the time it might have been the wind (Type II error), survived to pass on their genes.
The evolutionary reason for our tendency to believe a false positive (Type I error) was the cost of mistakenly accepting a false negative (Type II error).
We are descendants of the cautious ones.
Pareidolia and creativity
Pareidolia can fire up the imagination,
Many contemporary and renaissance artists have used Pareidolia in their paintings and drawings; Andrea Mantegna, Giotto, Hans Holbein, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo have shown images—often human faces—that, due to Pareidolia, appear in objects or clouds. 4
Leonardo Da Vinci used Pareidolia for creative inspiration. In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote of Pareidolia as a device for painters. 4
“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 landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also see divers combats and figures in quick movement, strange expressions of faces, outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms.”Leonardo Da Vinci
Many living artists, me included, still use Pareidolia for inspiration and creation.
Pareidolia can describe how our ancient ancestors connected the dots and came up with imaginative patterns we know as constellations. Now that we are primed, we can quickly see a lion in Leo, a scorpion in Scorpius, or a hunter in Orion.
Pareidolia can be fun and relaxing.
When you are tired of scanning through all the stories and videos on your social channels or have some time, use Pareidolia to entertain and relax.
Use the moment to see, hear and feel your surroundings. Try to see and hear imaginatively like a child, unconstrained by grown-up rules.
Perhaps the sunlight coming into your room from behind the trees creates shadow characters on your wall or the patio umbrella creaking in the wind sounds like you are on a creaking dock by the lake (Auditory Pareidolia).
Look up at the sky, and count how many animals you can see in the clouds. Or, if you are driving, glance at your rearview mirror and see if the car behind you looks happy, angry, or sad.
Try the exercise; it can distract you from your stresses and relax you. Mindfulness is about being in the moment; this helps you practice mindfulness.
I have always enjoyed this exercise; I find it meditative.
Mazarine is an artist, mindfulness practitioner and author of Mysteries In Colour, the art workbook, and Mysteries In Colour, social playshops and corporate workshops that utilize Pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon.