7. Pareidolia

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon in which a vague and random stimulus (visual or aural) is perceived, misinterpreted as a recognizable shape, and is the explanatory basis for why some people see madonnas, saints and faces of Christ in the most disparate places. Some Muslims in England, cutting tomatoes or eggplants, read in the folds of such vegetables the writing in Arabic characters with the testimony of Islamic faith, after the 1979 revolution in Iran, not a few Iranians saw on the face of the moon the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, some Hindus recognized in a potato the image of the god Ganésh, a child with an elephant’s head, various Christians in different parts of the world recognized the face of Jesus in a burnt tortilla, a no parking sign or a blood stain, and more than a few identified “satanic” phrases in rock music records played backwards.

Pareidolia is obviously not only about the religious world. Sightings of the Loch Ness monster, the abominable snowman and even Elvis Presley after his death can be explained by this phenomenon. Even there are those who have managed to see, as well as photograph and post on the Internet, the face of Osama bin Laden, or the devil, in the smoke swirls of the twin towers in New York after the September 11, 2001, attack (although the images in question were probably doctored to derive something recognizable). Nowadays on the net, examples abound of photographs also taken by probes to other planets, or a cloud or simply a smudge on the wall, in which people claim to see images.

Our brains divide the world into patterns and try to interpret the world around us. Our evolutionary advantage over other species is based on the fact that we can learn from the experience of our ancestors. Pareidolia has to do with experience. When we try to solve a problem, we need to find similarities with some previously solved problem, and this helps us because we save time. The search for similarities is also what allows us to distinguish faces, sounds (voices). Pareidolia is an inherent feature of the evolution of our brain and recognition centers. We humans, we struggle to see random shapes, we always try to associate a sense, something that our brain recognizes. Where there is only a blur, a shadow, we see shapes, faces and everything that comes from our imagination. We are suggestible, suggestibility also has to do with empathy, which is related to the issue of patterns for recognizing another as such.

The simplest example can be made by examining the “Kanitza triangle.”

figure 1

figure 2

A study published in a medical journal reported that when asked to a group of people used for the test to indicate what they saw in Figure 1, the totality of people indicated “three cakes missing a slice,” and immediately afterwards added “…and a triangle.” But it is clear that the triangle does not exist; however, it is suggested to us by the particular arrangement of the three “cakes.” It is enough to “rotate” the cakes (as in Figure 2) to verify that the “feeling” of seeing the triangle disappears.

that presented in Figure 3a, in which we seem to see a bearded head (as highlighted in Figure 3b).

figure 3a

figure 3b

Closer examination allows us to see that in fact the correct image depicts a child with a white bonnet sitting on a man’s lap (Figure 3c).

figure 3c

Two notes about this image are interesting. Many of the people used for the test did not report seeing a bearded head, but claimed, more accurately, to see the image of Jesus. This testimony is indicative of the fact that it is generally the more spiritual part of our unconscious that is affected by these phenomena: in seeing something that should not be there, that seems out of the ordinary.


The other interesting annotation lies in the fact that, having clarified the exact view of the image, people reported that they now saw “…a baby on the father’s lap…,” moving from a pareidolic error (visual misinterpretation) to an “apophenic psychic” error (psychological misinterpretation) in that no one can claim that the man is the father of the baby, but this is the interpretation that is generally suggested to us by an image of a man, a woman and a child: according to our common perception this is the typical image of a family group.

figure 3c

By way of demonstration, we give two more examples of suggestions: a pareidolic (visual suggestion) Figure 4 and a “cultural apophenic” Figure 5.

We suggest looking at Figure 5 and wait a moment before continuing the reading below
the image.

figure 4

figure 5

We are so used to seeing black print characters on a white background that we do not think about the fact that the same colors can also be reversed, so it takes a while before we read the word “lift.” (Figure 5)

This preamble makes us realize that the phenomenon is not so difficult to explain: not only the physical mechanisms of the brain, but also the culture of the society in which one grew up contribute to identifying known images from abstract visions. In fact, if a person of the Buddhist religion were shown the picture of figure 3 a, b, c, he would hardly identify the image of Jesus, since this figure is not part of that cultural world.