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Pareidolia – Seeing things that aren’t there
Medically reviewed by Christine Cancar on 29th April 2022
Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon of seeing things that aren’t there. For example, if you recognise faces in objects, such as a face burned into your toast, this is pareidolia.
It is a type of apophenia, which is the perception of connections in unrelated things. The term apophenia was founded by the psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his article on the beginning stages of schizophrenia.
When people experience pareidolia, they usually see human faces and characteristics in objects but can also see shapes that resemble other things such as animals.
The word pareidolia is derived from the Greek words 'para', meaning something faulty and 'eidolon' meaning image, form or shape.
It is used to describe the tendency to see random images in objects or patterns that are unrelated. For example, seeing a face that may resemble Jesus in a cloud or seeing the virgin Mary in a cheese sandwich.
The Merriam Webster definition of pareidolia is 'the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.'
Is pareidolia a sign of schizophrenia?
People often ask if pareidolia is a sign of schizophrenia. Whilst pareidolia is not usually related to a mental illness, it can be experienced in schizophrenia. For example, if seeing faces in inanimate objects starts to bring up emotions such as fear or anger, that’s when pareidolia can start getting out of control and may take over your life.
Is face pareidolia a disorder?
Face pareidolia is not a disorder. In the past, seeing faces everywhere and in objects was linked to psychosis. However, seeing faces in inanimate objects is now viewed as a normal human experience.
There are many examples of pareidolia, especially those connected to religious images.
In 2004, a woman from Miami sold an old grilled sandwich for $28,000 on eBay. She described the sandwich as having an image of Jesus on it.
During 1976, photos taken by the Viking 1 mission were believed to have shown a face on Mars that could have been the remnants of an ancient civilization.
Those who have visited St Mary's in Rathkeale, Ireland, have reported the tree stump outside of the church as having a silhouette of the Virgin Mary.
Seeing faces in objects
These are just a few famous examples of pareidolia. Seeing faces in objects is also a very common feature. Can you see a face in the following images?
What does it mean if you have pareidolia?
Evolution psychologists such as Carl Sagan, in his book Demon Haunted World have linked pareidolia to a survival technique, an evolutionary advantage which benefited our ancestors. He wrote that infants who were unable to recognise faces were less likely to be loved by their parents.
Assuming there are faces in your environment also meant that our ancestors were safer from predators. An example of this was given by Christopher French of the British Psychological Society. He said:
"A classic example is the Stone Age guy standing there, scratching his beard, wondering whether that rustling in the bushes really is a sabre-toothed tiger. You're much more likely to survive if you assume it's a sabre-toothed tiger and get the hell out of there - otherwise you may end up as lunch."
With facial recognition software, computers are now able to see faces too and often make mistakes. This can be seen to be similar to pareidolia.
The pareidolia test reveals how different people’s perceptions compare. It was found that women and religious people, those who believe in the supernatural and those who feel depressed are more likely to experience seeing faces in things.
Women may be more prone to experiencing pareidolia than men due to their ability to understand emotions through better interpretation of facial expressions.
According to studies, those who are neurotic or more prone to low moods are more likely to see faces in things as they are more nervous which makes them more alert to threats. This could mean that they see danger where there isn’t, and this could present itself in the form of a face.
Psychologists have used a test called the Rorschach inkblot test as a way of trying to understand personality and emotions. The test was developed by Herman Rorschach in 1921 and involved a series of ten ink blots in different colours and patterns.
Many psychologists believe that this test can be used to understand someone’s psyche. In this test, ink is dropped on a piece of paper; the paper is folded in half and the person being tested must then describe what they see. By projecting their innermost thoughts onto the otherwise random picture, the answer they give is supposed to indicate what sort of personality they have. This type of therapy is also widely disputed by many psychologists as there are no grounding facts to support it.
What is the difference between Apophenia and Pareidolia?
Apophenia is a more general term for pareidolia. Apophenia is seeing patterns in objects and associating them with preconceived ideas that one already holds. It’s a way of the brain trying to comprehend and make sense of things. For example, a man may see the time in many objects and then take this to signify the time at which his son committed suicide.
Pareidolia differs from apophenia as - it occurs when somebody may see a face or pattern in an object. However, people who experience pareidolia won't take this as a sign or mean anything to support their own ideas and beliefs about a subject.
According to Peter Brugger, from the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital in Zurich, high levels of dopamine increase the likelihood of experiencing apophenia and can also result in the belief of ghosts and paranormal activities.
What happens when Apophenia and Pareidolia are experienced at the same time?
When apophenia and pareidolia are combined, one will have a heightened experience. For example, one may find an image of Jesus in a piece of toast (this is pareidolia). However, if they then take this as a sign that God is communicating with them, then this is called as apophenia.