This morning I saw the face of Ted Cruz in my toast, or was it Donald Trump, or maybe Donald Duck? It doesn’t matter really as the point of today’s wittering is to discuss the familiar concept, but perhaps unfamiliar term, pareidolia.
Scarcely a day goes by without someone posting on social media that they have seen the face of the Lord (or rather that of Mel Gibson, Robert Powell, or a Renaissance depiction thereof, since no contemporary sketch of Jesus actually exists) in a whole host of everyday objects from avocados to zucchinis. Similarly, when we were kids, and perhaps even now, we’d look up at the clouds and recognize an odd shape (other than a sheep!)
So, what is this all about then?
Pareidolia (/pærᵻˈdoʊliə/ parr-i-doh-lee-ə) is the condition where the human brain looks at an object and also perceives a familiar pattern in that object that simply isn’t there (such as a face). It seems to be an innate characteristic of human beings, probably because we not only have well developed visual processing but, more importantly, because of our cognitive wiring, so to speak. It seems to hinge on us being hard-wired for rapid pattern recognition so that we have a shortcut to enable our brains to quickly identify familiar objects for binary decision making (safe or unsafe, friend or foe, etc.). Pareidolia is when this falls apart slightly and perhaps we miss the visual cues slightly. However, as the visual signal is processed so quickly against our internal reference we cannot help but “see” the object that isn’t really there..
There are many examples of this but perhaps the most (in)famous forced use of the condition is the Rorschach inkblot test which attempts to evoke this state and determine an individual’s mental state based on what the “average” person would see.
However, it also can be used for some interesting artistic effects too.
For example, I was walking in our garden one day and saw the poppy below which reminded me of an angel simply because of the way the petals fell.
Or, by careful choice of camera angle, I was able to evoke another visual interpretation of these two gray vases on a shelf 😉