What is Pareidolia?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pareidolia is a phenomenon in which people perceive meaning in abstract stimuli. One of the most classic examples of pareidolia is probably cloud-watching; many people have spent some time gazing at clouds and picking out fanciful shapes. In addition to being visible, pareidolia can also be auditory in nature. This phenomenon is a form of apophenia, a tendency to create patterns where none exist.

People may experience pareidolia while vacationing on the beach.
People may experience pareidolia while vacationing on the beach.

A number of theories to explain pareidolia have been posited by psychologists and people who study human development. Often, pareidolia takes the form of recognizing a human face in an abstract object, like a cinnamon bun or a rock, and some people have suggested that humans may be hardwired to recognize other humans, so they are especially attuned to face-like features. More likely, humans have learned to be very careful about potential predators, and the brain may overreact to something which looks like a potential threat in order to stay safe.

Whatever the cause, this psychological phenomenon manifests in all sorts of interesting ways. The Man in the Moon, for example, is another well-known instance of pareidolia, with many cultures around the world having some sort of myth which references a person living in the moon. Mysterious messages in static and the appearance of religious figures on fruit are also examples of pareidolia. Sometimes artists take advantage of this to embed hidden images in their work; Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings, for example, are often perceived as paintings of something else.

Mundane explanations for pareidolia are not always appreciated, especially in cases where people believe that they are seeing a figure of religious significance. Attacks on the validity of the sighting can be perceived as attacks on religion itself, with skeptics implying that there is in fact no hidden message in an unusually-shaped fruit or the peeling paint on a wall. People who experience religious pareidolia are often struggling with life difficulties which lead them to fervently desire a closer connection with God, and this can lead them to reject skeptical inquiry.

Many people experience pareidolia at some point in their lives, whether wandering around a forest at night, listening to music, climbing a mountain, or vacationing on the beach. Sometimes it seems to manifest in response to an emotional state, such as fear or worry, and at other times, it appears to be entirely random. Differences in how people perceive things can also explain why some people see shapes in abstract images when others don't, and why some people hear things which are inaudible to others.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When you tell other people you see a shape (even stating what you think you are seeing) they are (more often than not) going to see it too. But that doesn't mean it is there any more than the Face on Mars was there.


If one looks at a globe of the earth, there is a pareidolia of a tetramorph; a symbolic representation of Jesus surrounded by the four evangelists.


I read this definition and don't think its something that my mind made up. I have showed others what I see in the picture and yet they agreed with me as to it being something there. And yes, at one point in my life, I did have or carry what one may call the stink egg. A smell of a rotten egg. I believe it was something implanted in me.


Pareidolia is a universal phenomenon. It has an easily describable structure. An image is refinable (potentially), by playing with the angle of light, angle of viewing, and perspective - this particularly on stones. The image culminates in a focal point, and when a conscious eye is placed at that keyhole, what was potential becomes realized.


So Mary apparitions could be one form of pareidolia? Interesting, except if an apparition occurs often, and if others can see it, than maybe there is really something more to it?


How very discreet of you to say that some of O'Keeffe's paintings "are often perceived as something else." LOL

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