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  • Natalie Taylor


Do you tend to see faces in the sky, on stains on the wall, or on the bark of a tree? No, it doesn’t mean you have a mental problem; what you experience is called pareidolia—the propensity to see familiar objects in random or abstract images. Experiments show that even newborns respond strongly to the simplest stylized face; this is a normal function of our brain in its attempt to interpret the world.

It could be the side of a hill, a building, a tree stump, or even someone’s purse.

Pareidolia can involve any of the senses. The brain receives visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile information, and interprets it into something that makes sense. A good example is smelling smoke. Your brain takes this in, then alerts your body to the possibility of imminent danger, so you can act accordingly. The interpretation of two spots as possibly eyes is a defense mechanism, built into our psyche, and was an excellent way to detect danger when we were hunter-gatherers.

If you were foraging in a forest and spotted two dots in the bushes, you might imagine that it was a predator. Taking this as fact would lead you to run away.

If you were correct, and what you had seen was indeed a tiger, then perhaps your quick reaction gave you a chance for escape. If, however, you were wrong, and what you had seen were two gnarls in the trunk of a tree—what did you lose other than a bit of pride? You can see how useful pareidolia has been in our evolution as human beings; it’s a remnant of our early humanoid ancestry.

Human beings are fascinated with faces from the moment of birth. The first things that babies begin to distinguish are the faces of family members, and friends. We all eventually become experts at faces—we identify them, and as social beings we surround ourselves with faces every day. The faces of others give us a clue to intentions, they tell us if someone is threatening, friendly, upset, or perhaps anxious because of surroundings. The only non-human animals who can interpret faces as well as we do—and sometimes even better—are dogs. It is no wonder that dogs are always watching the faces of their owners, they “read” them, and take their cues how to act from that information. It is therefore not surprising, that we “see” faces even when none are around.

In 1865, German psychiatrist Kahlbaum named the condition, and explained it as “delusions in judgment,” giving it a negative connotation. But later psychiatrists, although still categorizing it as a psychological condition, saw it as a sign of creativity. The connection of pareidolia to creativity was even mentioned in the 16th century by Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote in his diary: “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains…[you can] invent some scene.” The development of the Rorschach test in 1921, tapped into our creativity by looking at inkblots, and assigning meaning to them.

Some people seem to have a hyperactive sense of recognition; they see more images in patterns than others. What is important, is what you do with that information. Simply seeing random images around you, can be interesting in and of itself. Or perhaps, if you are an artist, you may produce a painting based on what you imagined you saw. You might be inspired to write a poem, or bring forth a hidden memory. The danger is when people truly believe that what they have perceived through their pareidolia, is reality, or some sign from the beyond.

There are examples of people worshipping such images because they see something which they interpret as a religious figure or object. We have the examples of the Virgin seen on a piece of toast, or faded spots on a cloth that people assume are the holy markings of a deity, or, as I witnessed in Chicago, a stain under a highway bridge that became an object of worship. A random salt stain became known as the lady of the underpass, and caused great traffic congestion along one of the major thoroughfares. It finally disappeared in the middle of the night, painted over by an anonymous city crew.

These could be called the negative effects of pareidolia. If you are someone who has a tendency to see objects, but draw no conclusions, go ahead, look around. Does that paisley upholstery fabric have hidden birds, or snakes? Does that stain on the wall look like a bearded old man? Don’t fight it, enjoy this innate trait and consider yourself part of a conglomeration of creative people.

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