That’s the power of pareidolia, a peculiar, but entirely natural, function of the human brain that causes us to impose patterns on random collections of images and sounds.
From the Greek para-, “alongside of, instead of” and eidolon, “image, shape,” it’s an ancient ability that may have benefited survival in the far distant past, when it was essential to pick out hidden dangers in the landscape. Notably, Carl Sagan made this claim in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, asserting that it is a phenomenon that results from how our brains interpret light and shadows (sometimes making meaning from these features when there is none).
FAMILIAR SHAPES IN STRANGE PLACES
Pareidolia accounts for ancient tales of tree dwelling dryads, trolls who guard gardens and bridges, and stone giants. It’s what lets us see shapes in the contours of clouds, find a face on the surface of the moon, and trace the constellations in the night sky.
NOW YOU SEE IT – NOW I DON’T
Even if many people see the same image, they may interpret it differently. The Man in the Moon that every Western child knows is the Moon Rabbit in Asia. It is known as the Moon Buffalo, Dragon or Frog in various other cultures. That’s also the reason you may argue with a friend about what shape you see in the fluffy cloud scudding overhead.
Pareidolia isn’t limited to seeing. Auditory pareidolia refers to the phenomenon of finding meaning in random sounds, such as the electronic voice phenomena that ghost hunters claim is evidence of spirits speaking from beyond the grave. It also accounts for the rumored hidden messages in rock and pop music albums, like the belief among Beatles fans that certain tracks played backwards revealed the words “Paul is dead.”
PAREIDOLIA IN ART AND SCIENCE
It may seem that pareidolia leads only to silly and sometimes creepy outcomes. But psychologists exploit it through tests like the Rorschach inkblots, where the shapes seen in random ink spatters are thought to reveal insights into a subject’s subconscious. Artists also play with pareidolia, creating images that can be seen in various ways. Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings, for example, outrage some viewers – and delight others – who see in them suggestions of female genitalia.