What is pareidolia and how does it work?

While ‘pareidolia’ might not be a familiar or regularly used word, it’s a common experience. Derived from the Greek words pará and eidolon, to mean ‘alongside or beyond image or form’, pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon, where the mind responds to a visual stimulus (it can also be a sound) and sees something familiar in a random or ambiguous pattern. This is the brain’s attempt to interpret the images and find a connection where none exists. It’s what causes people to see such things as an owl in the grain of a pine cabinet, a cartoon character in the fold of a curtain or a smiling face on a garden fence post.

Photograph: tbc (need to choose)
Words: Carol Anne Strange

Why the brain is wired for pareidolia

There’s much conjecture about why people see identifiable faces, animals and shapes in random patterns, but it seems the brain is wired to notice or look for something recognisable. It’s widely thought that the brain is primed to see faces (the most common form of pareidolia) and is a product of our evolution.

Recent research by postdoctoral fellow Colin Palmer and his colleagues at Australia’s UNSW Science School of Psychology revealed that the brain used the same mechanisms to process these fake faces as it does for real ones. Although human faces all look a bit different, they share common features and special arrangement. Being able to recognise a face and interpret its emotional expressions helps to form associations.

Apart from seeing faces, some people are attuned to perceiving other things in everyday objects alongside what’s there, such as animals, mythological creatures, icons, structures, meaningful patterns and grand vistas. It seems that the art of seeing is open to personal interpretation and might be influenced by beliefs, interests or concerns. This could explain why someone who’s spiritual is more likely to see angels in the fabric of everyday objects. It’s also thought that people see things that aren’t there when feeling fearful or under stress. For example, when walking past a spooky wood at night, it’s possible to conjure up images of dangerous beasts lurking in the shadows. In some ways, this is a survival instinct that keeps people alert to unknown threats, even when there is none.

Pareidolia in art and art therapy

Seeing images in random objects and particularly in the natural world, such as a wizened face on a tree trunk, galloping horses on the crest of a wave or the shape of a fairy amid green foliage, is quite normal and considered to be a sign of a highly active and creative imagination. For centuries, artists have drawn upon this way of seeing for inspiration.

Pareidolia often comes into play in art therapy, a mode of psychotherapy that uses art materials rather than words as a way to communicate and express feelings, thoughts and emotions. Sue Bulmer is a registered art therapist working with individuals and organisations in the Nottingham and East Midlands area of the UK. She says that, in the UK, art therapists don’t stick to set directives or art tasks but, depending on the individual, they sometimes work in this way. For example, by generating some spontaneous art, in the form of a scribble or squiggle drawing with ink and string or ink blots and perhaps using the nondominant hand or with the eyes closed, marks can be made without any conscious planning or intent.

‘Once the image is complete, we would explore together and use free association to try to identify something recognisable to the client, which we could then go on to work on further in the session,’ says Sue. ‘This is a non-threatening way to begin to explore what their internal imagery means for them and can lead to increased self-understanding, personal transformation and maybe even a sense of mastery, accomplishment and liberation.’

How you can use pareidolia for inspiration

Perhaps seeing this way will inspire your own creativity or provide insights that hold personal meaning. At the very least, it’s possible simply to enjoy the spontaneity of this wonderful phenomenon. Take pictures of things you notice and share them on social media. Be ready for a lively discussion as friends point out what they see, which can often be something completely different. Once you start noticing instances of pareidolia, the world can take on a whole new perspective.