Perception of illusion

Pareidolia, put simply, is seeing credible, sensible images in random patterns. Examples are legion, from the Man in the Moon through images of Jesus Christ in tortillas, to the recent face in the cloud in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Different cultures, of course, see different things. To the Japanese, the patterns on the moon show a rabbit making mochi, to the Elizabethans in England, it was a witch carrying an ash faggot.

The ability to perceive images and make sense of them is innate, although making the connections between things has to be learned as youngsters, as the developing mind makes sense of the jumble of information we receive. Many psychologists have studied the way the mind makes sense of images, and it has thrown light on our desire to make sense of the world.

It certainly goes some way to understanding our wanting to explain things: we may want to believe in the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, and our unconscious mind attempts to interpret what we see in line with our desires. Wondering whether there is life on other worlds also explains the desire to see evidence of intelligent life there, the Face on Mars being one such example. The media frequently have stories on some devout or superstitious soul 'seeing' the face of the Christ or a 'saint' in everything from food articles to patterns of mould. Perception links with the mind to create an illusion of something desired or feared.

Other examples of 'seeing things' may be explained by randomness - given the nature of the billowing clouds after the impacts of September 11, 2001 it was almost inevitable that, of the many thousands of photographs taken, some would suggest faces. Some of these images are compelling, but almost certainly, down to chance.

Pareidolia is also involved in the famous Rorschach Ink Blot Test, used as a clinical tool to understand the motivations of a patient undergoing psychological or psychiatric evaluation. With a view to that, it's important not to confuse it with apophany, which is more to do with having false epiphanies. Finally, to prove that it's not just me, there is a Flickr group devoted to the phenomenon:

Just to prove that we are an erudite bunch, I was reminded (by Clockmaker) that pareidolia is a subtype of apophenia. Just goes to show.


In the knot of a tree or the wisp of a cloud,
In the life of the morn, or the quiescent eve,
Is the face of a saint, or the Virgin in shroud,
Should the eye of the seer devise to believe;

But the skeptic is lost as the Prodigal Son
When by chance he perceives a façade in the sky
And is captive the bars of retaliation
Against scripture and chaos as truth, by-and-by!

And in much the same way as our Luke had once told,
An agnostic returns to the host of his school,
And the skeptics forget that they knew the kobold
Who affiliates with such a fine band of fools.

And eventually all of the skeptics are gone
To agnosticism or the faith in a Lord,
And forget, they might quick, of the passionless throng
That they were in the sardonic times of before.

Not the tree nor the cloud is directly of God,
Nor His Son, nor His Cross, nor a prophet or priest,
But that nature is here might just be a faint nod
To the fact that the Love of this world is a feast.

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