Do you see elephants in
clouds? A man in the moon?
Unusual shapes in different objects?
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
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
However, this can also result in our conjuring them up from some very rudimentary visual input such as smiley
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
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
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 -
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.
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.