Pareidolia is an interesting phenomenon that reveals how our human minds are programmed to give randomized visual and audible forms experientially recognizable features like faces, spoken meaning and known objects.

You may have experienced Pareidolia before when you gazed up at the sky and saw a horse galloping across a cloud or when you looked into a shimmering of colors on the water and recognized a person’s face based on a suggestion of rippling waves. Pareidolia is related to Rorschach tests where you divine meaning from ink blots.

Pareidolia also has more significant meaning because in its most effective employment it forms minds into seeing the face of God in a tortilla or the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich or determining that “Paul is Dead” by listening to a Beatles song backwards.

Those interpreted indicia for finding human meaning in random events is fascinating and evidence of semiotics at work. Many instances of Pareidolia are religiously divined not as random images, but as verifiable signs from God we are not alone, and there is a greater presence out there making itself known.

Reports of seeing a weeping statue of Jesus, of seeing the Devil in a plume of smoke from the collapsing World Trade Center, of seeing Mary reflected in an office window, of seeing the face of Jesus on a wet concrete wall are all examples of Pareidolia that move beyond individuals and into group meaning.

That group-think inspired by a shared Pareidolia, no matter what image is being given definition, can be dangerous to our social fabric because instead of leading moral lives where we are bound to each other by promises, we instead become ensconced in majority feelings of unity, and not universal facts, that can be proven beyond the group. Imagination applied to images creates Pareidolia and facts presented to counter illusion smashes it.

People run from smashing. We also unwittingly apply Pareidolia to celebrities and politicians. We see them not as they really are but as we, and their Press Representatives, wish them to be. Pareidolia is broken when a jarring event like a child molestation trial or a jumping-bean couch-gymnastics expression of love for a younger woman on national television leap out at us, breaking the fourth wall of Pareidolia, and forcing us to see those celebrities as they really are beyond our attempt to preserve our careful ordering of their random sounds and images.

There is political and emotional comfort in finding meaning through Pareidolia and that is why the hard reality of what is NOT being seen is important to impress upon the timid and the yearning even if it leads to smashing.

You can read more about Pareidolia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia …and you can read an interesting take on cognitive perception in children and Pareidolia, here: http://www.york.cuny.edu/~seitz/analysis.pdf

36 Comments

  1. I like that’s what politicians do with consultants. They pay dollars to make up a new person that we can believe in. They invent themselves as mirrors so everyone sees back what they want.

  2. april — Yes, you’re on the idea! 🙂 Magicians do the same thing in a way: Look over here while I move something you can’t see under the table.
    donnie — The mirror image is quite appropriate, donnie. Reflection vs. Reflexive! 🙂

  3. Yeah, Dave. I think this kind of happens a lot in newspapers where just enough sketch of information is written and we fill in rest. Fairy tales. Even ghost stories. American don’t want real. They want fantasy of what should be in mind.

  4. Hey Simms!
    Nice to hear from you. Your analysis is interesting!
    We are trained from an early age to “fill in the gaps” in missing information with things we’ve already experienced and know instead of things we need to learn to know.
    It’s a sort of an easy comfort-reaction and it’s dangerous because many are not able then to predict what might happen in the future or to play out a bad scenario based on clues and images and sounds indicating unfamiliar awful things in the offing.

  5. Everything is a living speaking “God,” including pareidolic images.
    The Church/State/Military/Industrial/Educational system conspires to remove or control visionary ability, according to William Blake. (Obviously he found a way around this, but with great sacrafice.)
    Native Americans viewed everything as “God like,” so they had no specific words for sacred and sacreligious.
    The western view monopolized which images were “sacred” and which “sacreligious.” This greatly supressed peoples interest in pareidolia, espite Leonardo da Vinci’s claiming that this was the origin of art. (see Leonardo’s treatise on “quickening the spirit of invention.”)
    Random and chance images were also looked at as “work of the devil,” by the church as everything was suposedly ordered by “God.”

  6. I’ve created art using scribbles since the 80’s. There was no word to define what I was doing – even tea leaf reading has a name: Tasseography! So I created Scribblism. Pareidolia was first used in 1994 and has never worked when attempting to define my art. So off I was again inventing another word: Abstract Extractionism! Now this could fit the drip paintings I had graduated to, as well as the other art forms I was finding on the Internet. In creating a meta label, I was able to see the artform for what it is and recently, this vision has yielded an amazing discovery: “The Secret of the Sages” (the old man in the peanut).

  7. Hi all,
    I hope it’s not too late to get an answer to a question I have. I have been intesively studying pareidolia for quite awhile, and recently stumbled on this site while searching for more information on Fred Ressler’s exquisite art works.
    My question though, is to Alexander Boe, regarding the 8 stone faces he posted, that he said he “found in rocks during his walks in the dark” (paraphrasing). They are excellent specimens.
    Here is the issue. When studying pareidolia, it is important to separate out those images that have an artificial origin (i.e., they were MADE by someone, by etching, scratching, carving, skulpting, etc.) vs. those images that happened by random chance. That is a crucial distinction that must always be clear (unless we don’t know, of course, but therein lies the dillema). So, my question is, does Alexaner know the answer, regarding the 8 faces he posted? Can he tell us more about where they are? Any chance some indigenous peoples carved (or whatever) them?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    RJ

  8. Hi RJ,
    I will try to be more clear 🙂
    What I mean is that I find them at night. Usually besides a road, and the rock is usually illuminated from above by streetlights.
    I live in Kristiansand, Norway. The landscape is mostly valleys and big lumps of bedrock sticking up everywhere. So a lot of blasting through this rock is done when builing roads. these steep (often vertical) “walls” is where i have found most of the faces. I doubt any of mine have been deliberately crafted, although I see your point.
    I haven’t got a camera with the needed shutterspeed (up to 10 seconds if far away from a streetlight) to take pictures of the other faces I have found since. But I think I can borrow a digital SLR camera soon and I will put the pictures up on the (hopefully by then improved) webpage 🙂
    I’ll also get daylight shots of the same spots, but few faces are very good (or visible) in daylight due to the lack of shadows.
    The faces on the pics are ca. a square foot big except the bottom two which are maybe 5*10 inches (and also some of the few I’ve ever found in daylight).
    Very detailed faces are rare. But crude faces and otherwise detailed faces missing one or more important parts are very easy to find. It’s a bit of ‘The tip of the iceberg’ situation. Only the very best are worth taking pictures of, since there are endless of places to go. At least here.
    I have found very few faces in natural rocks and ‘mountainsides’. I guess because of the the more numerous shadows in the raw edges of blasted rock.
    Alexander Boe

  9. Hi Alexander,
    Thanks very much for taking the time to explain that. Sounds to me like you are doing something similar to what Fred Ressler is doing, only your medium is blasted bedrock, as opposed to shadows, but you’re using your artistic abilities in much the same way.
    I congratulate you, because they really are quite good.
    By the way, you mentioned that few good faces are visible in the daylight because of the lack of shadows. That’s an important point because true pareidolia images disappear upon close inspection. Unless of course, the original artist was so crafty, that they carved the images for the sole purpose of “showing up” in the correct lighting. One could easily see how an artist might do something like that.
    Have you ever had the opportunity to inspect any of these close up, where you can conclude that they are really nothing more than shapes and contours in the rocks, just like you thought?
    I apologize for asking all these questions, but the reason why I do is that your pictures are perfect examples (as are Fred’s) of something I’m been trying to prove, and a question we’ve been trying to answer: Namely, can pareidolia produce complex images through random chance, or is it limited to simple faces in the clouds or “potato head” type images.
    I believe pareidolia can be quite elaborate indeed, (and you and Fred are proving it!), given the right type of terrain to work with, and an artistic mind and eye.
    Thanks again,
    RJ

  10. Hi Robert- Glad you liked my photos. Just wanted to clarify a few things. Pareidolia images maintain their appearance on close inspection. They can be seen a lot more clearly in the “original form” than on the web. Any man made alteration to an image voids the term pareidolia. The image named Einstein, on is the most complex pareidolia ever recorded and showed up “randomly.” If one had access to all the shadows that could be recorded all over the world in one day, i am certain at least one would be far more phenomenal than this. It would be nice if others tried taking shadow photographs. They would enter a universe where they would see that they are projecting these images from their “unconscious,” at the same time they are projected to the themselves. (“If you stare into an abyss long enough, the abyss stares into you,” (Friedrich Nietzsche.) This solipsistic view, if adopted by mankind would end war/prison and slavery. People would see that they are dreaming in the day, as well as night- and there is no “enemy.” They are killing/imprisoning/enslaving themselves. In a just/sane world we could work 6 hours/year for a middle-class existence according to the visionary genius Buckminster Fuller.

  11. Fred,
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to reply. Thanks for your thoughtful message.
    I’d like to correct something, though. When I said, “because true pareidolia images disappear upon close inspection”, I didn’t mean that if we examined your negatives, or files, that the image would disappear. No, your faces are as real as anything. What I was saying was that if I came to your house to see the images on the side from the trees, I couldn’t because they really don’t exist.
    That’s true of all pareidolia images. They either don’t really exist other than in the artist’s rendition of them, or they do exist but they’re random and not the work of an artist (sounds contradictory, but it isn’t).
    So, I really do agree with what you’re saying.
    By the way, I’d love to see your original high resolution images.-RJ

  12. Robert- The beauty of pareidolia is that it is a natural phenomenon recorded by man. “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better.” (Andre Guide). The photographer of pareidolia does minimum and this is the Taoistic/perfect flow lines of nature that no “artist” can compete with. The images really existed when i recorded them. “You can’t step into the same river twice.” “There is no “twice”. “Random” and “order” are just words, like all words. The mystery of pareidolia is the closest phenomenon to the overall mystery. i feel it the start to get out of the the war based society that has evolved; as when one engages in it (shadow photography especially), one experiences the solipsistic view that even Einstein thought had “it’s limited. We are creating our daytime dream as we create our dreams at night. “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” End war- and peace which has led to war more than any other term. End Descartian dualism before it’s to late. Why die over words and ideas?. Lets get beyond “Religion” and the new religion that replaced the old- “Science.”

  13. 13SEPT2006 – HAPPY PEANUT DAY!! Grab a bag of peanuts and witness one of the most amazing examples of pareidolia!
    Blasted Rock, Clouds, Shadows, – PEANUTS(Art In A Nutshell.com) – I love this artform!
    I would argue that Fred is doing a bit of sculpting there in that fancy photography. Has not his consciousness decided which breeze would be best to capture his Recognitions; or, depending on when the tree was last watered, when the best day is for capturing it’s either dried up leaves or very plump leaves depending on the images sought. Decisions like orientation of the image and the others I mentioned seem to me to be the hand of man.
    Also, shadows of man-made objects that come together to form new Recognitions should be explored, making this statement difficult to digest:
    “Any man made alteration to an image voids the term pareidolia.”
    When someone is scratching away at the bottom of a pan year after year and one day realizes it looks like a portrait of Jesus Christ – well, that doesn’t void the term pareidolia for me. If anything voids the term pareidolia is the fact that it was invented in 1994 and that it is one of the most horrible words to actually pronounce aloud.
    It really falls short of being a complete definition as Pareidolia does, but Serendipity sounds so much better.
    Ofcourse, you know I’m going to promote ABSTRACT EXTRACTIONISM!

  14. High again Ish (no sic intended.) No sculpting just straight forward shadow shots. Sure- high breeze is best. Best trees= Aspen.(i know this intuitively just haven’t gotten to where they live yet since i started shooting). Times= 1. early morning 2.Noon 3.evening in that order. Recently watered plump leaves. Around time of full moon. Orientation =minimum distortion (minimal elongation of light). Forget man made object shadows. Man made objects take “time” to make. Remember Andre Gide’s quote posted above. (The less it has to do with man, the better). Anything having to do with man made voids pareidolia for me. All words are “lame,” pareidolia is just another one. All pareidolia is serendipity, but all serendipity is not pareidolia, so i’m sticking with pareidolia. i’m promoting pareidolia and the SOLIPSISM it PROVES which WILL save the world.

  15. i seemed to miss your point first time around, Ish. To claify, sure my hand/body/brainconscious/unconscious get’s involved of necessity; but i minimize it. The best part of the term pareidolia is it has only one meaning compared to “simulacra,” and “eidetic images.” Scraping the pizza pan, no viewer knows for sure what percentage conscious or unconscious or serendipitous or “fraud” went into it.

  16. ONE MEANING FOR PAREIDOLIA?!? because of the additive nature of wikipedia, pareidolia MORPHS as time goes on.
    since 1994 i have watched as people add to the definition, altering slightly as we go. originally, the word states that it is an erroneous, incorrect, or fanciful vision- the roots of the word still reveal this. you can label these visions as mistakes or erroneous but that limits what is happening here. i just can’t see myself putting the constellations as well as ink blot tests or klecksography under such a heading (out of hundreds of thousands of years of seeing Recognitions in Patterns and words associated with it – i doubt protogenes would have favored pareidolia).
    so much for this art getting rid of war – we don’t even agree on a word for it!!!!
    went to see your photos (fred) at the yard dog – fun stuff.
    if the frying pan ( http://www.wkyc.com/dotcom3/weblinks_fullstory.asp?id=29714 ) doesn’t fit under pareidolia – then which word works best? because no viewer knows for sure what percentage conscious or unconscious or serendipitous or “fraud” went into it, should we also dismiss your photos? Couldn’t you be out in the sun dangling one limb over your image because it was missing an eye and now with the slight addition of another leaf it is complete? because of the ephemeral nature of your shadow photos – you couldn’t disprove this – you now have the same authenticity (according to this rationale) as the frying pan.
    The Sage of the Leguminati

  17. Ismael- For sure words are slippery stuff. They morph as do the words that define them. One can do anything with or against them. The word master Socrates argued himself to death with them. i proved that 2+2=5 with them. Words are not my thing at all. They should be used to enlighten not bamboozel. Lets just say that pareidolia is the most accurate term for the phenomena of seeing faces/figures/forms in patterns; as opposed to where one normally sees faces/figures/forms (on animals including people/landscapes etc. As you will readily admit all pareidolia is “abstract extraction” but not all “abstract extraction” is pareidolia. i prefer the most inclusive term (pareidolia), as it is the most communicative. (What words are for.) Great you saw the photos at yarddog. You’re the first person i’ve heard from that saw them there. i could not be doing anything other than straight forward shadow photography, as this would show up in the results. “He/she who has eyes let him see.” i admit most people with limited or no first hand experience of doing shadow photography might have difficulty seeing this. No one can prove/disprove anything. “There are no facts, merely interpretations.” (F.Nietzsche.) If anyone would care to take shadow photos and see these images are projected from him/her and to him/her and join in the save the world from the current idiocy, i would be beyond delighted. “When one stares into an abyss, the abyss stares into one.” (Nietzsche). Before you assume i’m a Nietzsceite i remined you he classified himself as a warrior who loved war. Of course this was pre-WWI, WWII, and the current insanity. Solipsistically/Pareidolically Illuminatied.

  18. Ismael- If one can “see”, as a seer sees my photos, one can see that the leaves are approximately 20 to 30 feet away, to get that type of detail and the leaves form such small shadows. One can see that it would be impossible to have some one up in a tree with me yelling instructions to clip this leaf or add that. If one looks at my most detailed photo “Einstein,” one can see that the wind must have been blowing especially briskly that day. This image could never occur under no wind conditions. To imagine someone 30 feet up in a tree on a windy day or using a long pruning pole below, pruning or adding leaves, says more about the maker of the statement than it does about the subject he is talking about. The “Einstein” image was obviously on the board for less than a second. I remember moving in for a second shot and it was gone. My proof is for seers only. Skeptics are skeptical of everything but their own skepticism and that which they condone. He who has eyes let him see, with long and deep meditation.

  19. Ismael- i said what pareidolia IS. i didn’t mention meaning at all. You started with “meaning” and on top of this you twisted it and stretch it to include “definition.” You are confusing the terms “definition” (how a thing is defined in words). With “meaning” (how a thing speaks about it self). Any “thing” including a pareidolic image (taken singularly), or pareidolia when looked at collectively has/have only one meaning (in the singular) and another meaning (in the collective). Of course like all words it has many definition and these change also. These meanings change every nano-second as do the objects themselves. The definitions also change. The use of words is to communicate and move forward in a positive direction. Many people use them for other reasons, but this retards the natural flow for all. i read many things looking for something i knew not what for sure, till i read a quote from P.D.Ouspensky. “Everything is a living speaking “god.” i looked around and everything was glowing and speaking. Objects were saying what they meant. The way is not the worded way. He who has eyes let him/her see. He who has ears let him/her hear. “May there be peace on earth and throughout all creation.” OOOOOooooooooMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmm(John Coltrane.)

  20. Fred,
    I enjoyed your message.
    Unfortunately, there are those that wish to kill us. As sad as that is, it’s a true fact.
    No, personally, I prefer the Catholic viewpoint. We’ll turn the other cheek up to a point, but eventually we must do what it takes to survive.
    RJ

  21. Robert- i prefer the enlightened/solipsist viewpoint. We are not separate. There is no enemy other than those we create. Those who wish to kill us do so because we refuse to give them a “piece of the action.” Spread the monopolies and make everyone as content as possible. If someone has a “complaint” put it into the computers and let the people vote directly. The minimalization of middle men is what is needed. Run the world like Ben and Jerry ran their company. The wealthiest should be no more than seven times as wealthy as the poorest. All men are not created equal, but they should end up as close to that way as possible.

  22. Fred, I think history has shown that communism doesn’t work. The most recent example is the Soviet Union. I once had an Applied Statistics Professor who was from Russia, ask me, “what would you think about a semiconductor company that made 100% waste for two consecutive years.” Where all 200 employees came in, every day for two years, went through all the process steps, and knowingly produced 100% waste for two years. We just happened to be studying the concept of “yield” at the time. When he asked me the question, he had a sort of glint in his eye. He knew how insane it was, but that’s what it comes to when a man is not allowed to keep the fruits of his labor. The system breaks down, and there is NO production. NO jobs. NO wealth for anyone.
    Sure, it’s gotten crazy in recent years. Look at the list of 400 billionaires Forbes keeps track of. I understand what your saying. But, look how many hundreds of thousands of people’s lives depend on the jobs these people provide. What would happen if they went on strike? What if all the Bill Gates in the world said, screw this. Why should I provide jobs to these ingrates? What if Atlas Shrugged?

  23. Robert-
    Communism hasn’t worked. This is most likely due to crooks running the government, much as we have no democracy here. Communism didn’t even have a chance in the western hemisphere because it was subverted. (see Alende, Nicarogua, Sandanistas, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan etc.)Bill Gates and now Branson of Virgin Airlines and many others are not waiting for the trickle down effect you advocate, but are sharing their wealth. Please meditate on Buckminster Fuller’s statement that we could each work for 6 HOURS per YEAR, for a middle class existence in a sane world where we would have no prisons/war/unecessary competition, unecessary B.S., crime, etc. The way the system is now, people working for “minimum wage,” can not even live on the “fruits of their labor.”

  24. For the record, this statement is false:
    “As you will readily admit all pareidolia is “abstract extraction” but not all “abstract extraction” is pareidolia.”
    The fact is, as the creator of the phrase Abstract Extractionism and its definition, I can honestly say that Abstract Extraction encompasses all “pareidolia” as well as much more.

  25. Ismael- Yes Abstract Extractionism encompasses all pareidolia, but not all Abstract Extractionism IS pareidolia. For example a photograph of a human leg IS Abstract Extractionism but it IS NOT pareidolia. As a matter of fact Abstract Extractionism includes everything, as everything other than “concrete” objects (real objects), is Abstract Extractionism. Rembrandt’s paintings could be considered Abstract Extractionism and so could Jackson Pollack’s as both are Abstract and Extracted, as is everything except real objects. This could even be extended so far as to include any object if one were to get literal. Everything is one. Each of us, or any object is an Abstract Abstraction once defined, because there is no separate anything. Everything is only named as part of the one and only universe. All representations are Abstract Extractions. All words and ideas and objects are Abstract Abstractions. For further clarification of this way of thinking as opposed to the standard platonic concensus way of thinking, please see
    [http://www.urbandictionary.com/author.php?author=fred+ressler] Thanks. Respectfully fred.