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You may not know what this word means, but it’s undoubtedly an effect you’ve experienced. Pareidolia (pronounced PARR-I-DOH-LEE-A) is a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus—either an image or a sound—in which the mind perceives a familiar pattern, where none actually exists. This is the basis of the game of cloud watching, where animals, faces and objects are spotted in cloud formations. It’s why people either see a man or a rabbit in the patterns of the moon’s surface. We also have pareidolia to thank for emoticons and emojjis, as it’s this effect that ensures we recognise a few circles and lines as faces.
Seeing human bodies and faces or animals are very common effects—and there’s a scientific reason for this. A 2009 study mapped brain activity by measuring the magnetic fields produced by electric currents through neurons. It found that objects which look like faces activate the same parts of the brain that recognise real human faces. This whole process is so quick that it’s entirely unconscious and involuntary.
But why do our brains react this way? One reason is that natural selection has favoured those who can quickly analyse the faces of those around them, assess their moods and react accordingly. Also, individuals who are more adept at spotting faces are more likely to survive—the ability to quickly pick out a sabre-tooth tiger face amid jungle leaves would have given our ancestors a clear advantage. It’s clearly a trait which is hard-wired into us: babies have been found to instinctively turn towards things resembling faces even minutes after birth. It’s also a natural consequence of the way our brains make sense of information around us. The world presents a constantly shifting and changing set of lines, shapes and colours, and the mind makes sense of these by comparing them with familiar objects.
Sometimes this effect has been utilised by psychologists. Most famously it is the basis of the Rorschach blot test, developed in 1921 by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. The test comprises ten cards with seemingly random ink blots. The tester would show each one to a patient and ask what they see, assessing these answered based on pre-set criteria. Originally Rorschach developed this test to diagnose those suffering from schizophrenia, as this condition heightens a person’s tendency to find patterns in random data. However, it came to be used widely throughout the 1960s as a general personality assessment.
The faces of religious figures are very often spotted in random objects; a sceptical person might put this down to pareidolia. For instance, in 2004 a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich (pictured) was sold on eBay for $28,000, simply because a mark on it was said to resemble the Virgin Mary. Even more famously, the Shroud of Turin is a piece of linen cloth which apparently shows the image of Jesus, and many believe it to be his burial cloth.
The prevalence of religious imagery spotted on inanimate objects might be explained by science too. A 2012 study by the University of Helsinki in Finland found that those who are religious or believe in the paranormal are more likely to see faces in objects and landscapes than those who aren’t. This could be because of people’s expectations—those who believe in the paranormal expect to see it, so they are more likely to. So pareidolia might also explain UFO, Bigfoot and ghost sightings.
This article has focused on visual pareidolia, but the effect can occur with sound too. A common example is the perception of human voices amid random static, or secret messages in music played backwards. From September 1969 many Beatles fans claimed that playing the band’s songs backwards relieved clues about bass guitarist Paul McCartney’s death. These ‘backmaskings’ were one of many clues in the long running ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy, which claimed that he’d been replaced by a look-a-like.