PAREIDOLIA: Objects with unusual shapes

Elephant or Cloud?

Fish or Stone?

Forest or Heart?

Buterfly in the space?


Do you see elephants in clouds? A man in the moon? Unusual shapes in different objects?

Don't look now, but it sounds as if you have a classic case of pareidolia.

That's the tendency to see recognisable images from ambiguous forms, whether random markings on rocks, patterns of mildew or water stains on shower walls.

The images perceived are often those of faces. Why? It's the flip side of a fundamental survival mechanism.

Dependent on interacting with others, we are biologically programmed to recognise human faces, often with very little to go on (for example, from great distances or in poor light).

Face on Mars - click on the image to enlarge

However, this can also result in our conjuring them up from some very rudimentary visual input such as smiley emoticons.

Or the mountains of Mars, site of the famous (picture on the right) a 1976 Viking spacecraft photo of what looked like an enormous stone face that proved to be nothing more than the shadows cast by a natural geological formation.

Psychologists harness the power of pareidolia in the Rorschach ink blot test, where clients are asked to describe what they see in random patterns of ink blots.

Their interpretations of these meaningless blotches are then analysed for clues to their mental states. Whether this is accurate is debatable, but how we interpret random patterns certainly gives clues to our preoccupations.

Religious Pareidolias:

Pareidolia often takes a religious turn, with many of the images in question being those of icons such as

  • The Virgin Mary, whose portrait was said to adorn a grilled cheese sandwich made by Diana Duyser, from Hollywood, Florida, that fetched $28,000 on eBay in November 2004.
  • The face of Jesus is another perennial that has shown up on everything from bricks to pretzels.
  • The equivalent in Muslim cultures is the name of Allah, reportedly spelt out on objects ranging from the innards of eggplants to the hides of goats. 

Non-believers might be more inclined to see the face of Elvis or other celebrities but the mechanism involved is the same: we're so keen to make the connection with what matters to us that we jump to conclusions, sometimes wild and woolly ones.

Virgin Mary on a tile - Source: -
Click on the image to enlarge

Pareidolia explains many delusions based on sensory misperceptions, from UFOs to the Loch Ness monster to hearing messages from dead rock stars when tapes are played backwards.

Loch Ness Monster
Click on the image to enlarge

A related phenomenon is apophenia, or the tendency to see patterns in random data, such as spotting secret codes in strings of numbers.

Or to make associations between unrelated phenomena such as the appearance of comets with calamitous events, or the ravings of Nostradamus with the rise of Hitler.

Some think the ability to make associations where none exist is the basis of creativity. Others dismiss it as a sign of abject credulity, if not barking madness.

Either way, humans are hard wired to seek meaning: where it doesn't exist, we'll make it up, imposing our own order on external chaos, whether in the form of comets or clouds, bricks or eggplants.