Pareidolia-Psychological Phenomenon of Seeing Faces in Things

pareidolia or seeing faces in things

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.

Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is the perception of connections in things which are unrelated. 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 characteristics in objects but can also see shapes that resemble other things such as animals.

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 to get out of control and take over your life. In the past, seeing faces in objects was linked to psychosis. However, seeing faces in inanimate objects is now viewed as a normal human experience.

Pareidolia examples

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 to have 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 to bear 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?

Troll Face on Cliff in Norway

Face within a fruit

teddy bear on back Teddy Bear on Back

face in coffee Funny Face in a Cup of Coffee

pebble on the sand Pebble on the Sand with Holes Forming a Face

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 able 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.

Pareidolia test

The pareidolia test reveals how different people’s perceptions compare. It found that women and religious people and those who feel depressed are more likely to experience seeing faces in things. 

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 involves 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. 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. The answers they give is supposed to indicate what sort of personality they have.

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 to apophenia in that 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 to 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 increases 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 go on to take this as a sign that God is communicating with them, then this is apophenia.



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