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Do you often see faces in inanimate objects? Maybe an old man in a fluffy cloud or a toothy grin smiling back at you from the rear of a car? Most people have never heard of pareidolia but almost everyone has experienced it. Pareidolia is a physiological phenomenon where the mind perceives an image or sound where none actually exist. Although it can cause people to see Jesus on a flour tortilla or form dynamic pictures in the inkblots of Rorschach test, one of the most common symptoms of pareidolia is seeing faces in inanimate objects.
One famous example of Pareidolia the many faces of the Moon. In the Northern Hemisphere, a common Western perception of the moon is its apparent facial features. Dubbed the “Man on the Moon”, the figure’s eyes are formed by Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis. The Man on the Moon’s nose is Sinus Aestuum and its wide open mouth is Mare Nubium and Mare Cognitum.
Another European tradition sees the figure of a man etched into the moon’s surface, carrying a sack on his back. While many stories from Asian folklore and Aztec mythology recognize the presence of a Moon rabbit.
Another space-related pareidolia event came about when a satellite photo of a mesa formation on Mars was dubbed the “Face on Mars”. The face was cited as evidence of extraterrestrial habitation on the planet. It turned out to be a natural rock formation.
But not every incidence of pareidolia happens out in space. Rock or tree formations may come to mimic facial features through weather and erosion. On a smaller scale, cars are often said to have “faces”, constructed from the two headlights which take on the appearance of eyes. Often anything that includes a few circles and a line as a mouth can register as a face to the human eye.
Researchers have a few theories as to why pareidolia occurs. Part of it could be due to our evolutionary heritage, a sensitivity to detecting faces for safety. While it has also been suggested that pareidolia is a consequence of the brain’s information processing system.
Constantly sifting through random lines, shapes, surfaces, and colors, the brain tries to pair input with memories stored in our long-term retention of knowledge. This results in ambiguous visual information being interpreted as something we can understand more easily.
Ever catch your mind wondering, making out faces and shapes in inanimate objects? While you are off daydreaming, your mind continues to work hard at understanding its host’s surroundings. This is a great way to relax and allow inspiration to come to you naturally.
Watching figures in clouds drift overhead isn’t just peaceful, its a reflection on the inner workings of your own creativity. Many artists have harnessed pareidolia as a form of inspiration and insight. Leonardo da Vinci described pareidolia as a device for painters, writing that;
“If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and various groups of hills. You’ll also be able to see diverse combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces and outlandish costumes and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms”.
As photographers, we often pursue beauty in subjects that go unseen to the casual eye. So it’s not unusual for us to encounter pareidolia on a day-to-day basis. But although shadows in the night and weird rock formations can look a little creepy, pareidolia gives us a great opportunity to harness the phenomena to create psychologically engaging and even humorous bodies of work.
Faces in objects can be extremely evocative for a viewer. It’s almost like holding up a mirror to our own interpretations of a space. Addressing a phenomenon that bridges the gap between the known and the ambiguous adds personality to an image. The shared experience of pareidolia is also a great discussion topic.
Having people gather around an image to discuss and compare what they see creates an energy and a connection with the image and those viewing it. Discussing and comparing what different viewers see in an object creates energetic conversation and a greater bond with a photographic image as well as other viewers.
These kinds of personal ties to an image create lasting experiences. So what about you? Do you experience pareidolia? How has it impacted your photographic practice? I’d love to see your findings in the comments section below!