The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “pareidolia” as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random ambiguous visual pattern”. It probably has happened to you as you’re strolling down a street, and you see an object resembling a face, or maybe an animal in the clouds, or a monster drawn by the shadow of an object. Humans have a tendency to see faces on inanimate objects. That’s pareidolia.
Pareidolia is so common that even Nasa scientists confuse objects on the surface of mars with aliens. Humans see anthropomorphized images on inanimate objects because their brains recognize a basic characteristic pattern and the inner workings of the mind try to connect the dots and associate the image with a person.
Humans aren’t the only ones with Pareidolia
A 2017 study shows that Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) found out that these animals can also perceive the same sensation. The basis for this phenomenon relies on our neuronal mechanism that governs the brain. Pareidolia begins when humans recognize the morphology or resemblance of a face, beginning with the eyes, which creates a faux optical illusion. From a scientific point of view, its a habituation process in which cells that are involved in the detection of the direction of the glance or look change their sensitivity when repeatedly exposed to shapes with a peculiar form. This uncanny ability also has an evolutionary explanation, as it helps us discern from threats and identify camouflaged predators.
Humans see animals or faces in the shapes of clouds, mountain ranges, the back of cars, electric sockets, buildings, pavement silhouettes, and even in outer space such as the Mars face, or the bunny on the moon.
Once considered a symptom of human psychosis, further analysis of the phenomenon with modern-day techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging has allowed us to reach the conclusion that this human tendency to see shapes everywhere is part of our nature. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, human development and cognitive processes see activation by a human face like resemblances. Babies identify their mothers, and pediatricians evaluate if a healthy child looks at his mother as they grow up. Despite its simplicity, pareidolia gives information about the surroundings, conditions, and the leanings towards interpreting certain external stimuli.
This 1566 painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo resembles a face made of chicken and the tail of a fish.
This classic satellite photograph oof the Cydonia martian region was called the face of mars.
This drawer cabinet seems to be smiling back at us
This rock formation in Iceland resembles an elephant.
What about this happy cheese grater?
Or a Stallion in the clouds? —Seems photoshopped, but our readers get the idea.
Pareidolia can also take a spooky look, as these rock formations seem to be wailing some sort of painful moment.
Pareidolia is a very common phenomenon that we get to see almost every day in our lives, something that keeps our imagination alive and our capacity to identify patterns, shapes, and forms in a way that few species can, giving us an evolutionary advantage.