Many of us remember the age-old, childhood game of lying in the grass on a sunny day and watching as cumulus clouds merge and separate in the wind overhead. The magical white fluff moves just so, and the form of a dog emerges or perhaps a boat or a horse. In the same way, when you cut a bell pepper in half, its inner membrane and seeds may form faces, funny or frightening. Light sockets maintain a state of constant surprise, while the internet is rife with memes of fruits and vegetables that have grown into amusing forms.
Fortunately, these “visions” are not a sign that the viewer is going crazy. The phenomenon is called pareidolia, pronounced “parr-i-DOH-lee-uh.” Merriam-Webster defines pareidolia as the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Once thought to be a symptom of psychosis, pareidolia is now believed by scientists to be perfectly natural. Human beings are born to recognize patterns and see things — or sometimes hear things — where they may not actually exist. Often, all it takes is one or two shapes resembling eyes or a familiar sound, and the imagination is off and running.
The religious and the superstitious are more likely to see heavenly or satanic forms. In 1954, Canada issued banknotes featuring Queen Elizabeth II. A newspaper article later dubbed the bill the Devil’s Face, noting the specter of a satanic ghoul leering out from the curls behind the queen’s ear. Occasionally these sightings are lucrative, such as the time a woman sold a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich bearing the supposed likeness of the Virgin Mary on eBay for $28,000. The view depends on the viewer; others who see photographs of the sandwich see Marilyn Monroe or Madonna instead.
Women are more likely to spot faces in objects than men, possibly due to their ability to recognize emotions through facial expressions. However, women and men alike assign human attributes to the manmade object most likely to evoke pareidolia: the automobile. Headlights and front grills often evoke thoughts of a face. It is not unusual to see a Volkswagen Beetle’s headlights adorned with eyelashes, a feature one would never add to, say, a large pickup truck or a Dodge Charger or a Chevrolet Camaro. Nothing is more intimidating than the monster-like grille of a Charger or a Camaro speeding into your rearview mirror unless, of course, blue flashing lights are included.
In addition to visual pareidolia, you may experience auditory pareidolia: hearing voices and other auditory stimuli in normal, everyday sounds. It occurs when the brain recognizes patterns in routine noises and assimilates them to sounds one already knows. Wind, a fan, or an air conditioner can produce sounds that resemble voices. The noise of shower water hitting a drain can sound like a phone ringing or an alarm going off.
Of all the places you can experience pareidolia, nature is the best. You have only to lift a conch shell to your ear to hear the ocean, even when the coast is many miles away. Likewise, a view of the moon invites you to search for the face of the man rumored to live there or to imagine that it is made of cheese. Mountain and rock formations often excite the human imagination. One example is Camelback Mountain in Arizona, with its distinctive camel-shaped humps. New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, a series of granite ledges resembling a man’s face, watched over the state until it collapsed in 2003. South Carolinians don’t have to drive that far to see Grandfather Mountain lying on his back taking a siesta.
Humans assign words to birdsong, even though birds cannot speak them. The eastern phoebe sings its own name, or so a listener might think. Another self-promoter is the northern bobwhite quail. Creativity points go to the Carolina wren’s “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” song, as does the “cheeseburger” ballad of the mountain chickadee.
Old, knotty tree trunks appear to have faces, a truth memorialized in movies and television shows such as in Pocahontas, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Game of Thrones to name a few. Quite a number of flowers evoke images of other beings. Little imagination is required to see why the monkey face orchid, Dracula simia, is so named. When considering the moth orchid, Phalaenopsis blume, you can imagine a beautiful bird hovering just above your face. Dancing girls, Impatiens bequaertii, and parrot flowers, Impatiens psittacine, are beautiful representatives of their namesakes, while the happy alien, Calceolaria uniflora, is just plain fun.
The beauty of pareidolia is always in the eye of the beholder. You are free to see your own vision in the flame of a fire, in the leaf of a plant, in a wisp of smoke, or in a cloud in the sky. Diverse experiences allow humans to see different visions in the same objects, and the opportunity to share and compare those visions with a friend opens a delightful, imaginative world to everyone.