Have you ever seen an angel, a castle, a dog, or a monster in the clouds? Or maybe a grilled cheese sandwich that looked suspiciously similar to a celebrity? Maybe a face appeared in your morning cup of Joe. We’ve all seen everyday things that look like something or someone else. The good news is that it doesn’t mean we’re a little crazy or overly imaginative. Instead, the ability to look at random objects and see familiar things is a perfectly normal phenomenon called pareidolia, a word from the Greek meaning, “resembling an image.”
The Theories and Science of Pareidolia
For many years, scientists had a variety of explanations for this phenomenon. Some thought that seeing faces in the clouds was a symptom of psychosis while others, including famous scientist Carl Sagan, thought that pareidolia came from an evolutionary need to recognize people or potential threats quickly.
In actuality, pareidolia comes from our need to organize random information into patterns. That’s why, when glancing at something simple like an electrical outlet, most people would agree that it looks like a face.
This search for patterns isn’t limited to sight, either. While it’s much more common to see a face or object in a random place, people can hear pareidolia, too. If you’ve ever listened to static on your radio or the roar of your vacuum cleaner and thought you heard someone speaking, you’ve experienced auditory pareidolia.
Where To See Pareidolia
Pareidolia pops up everywhere—not just clouds—but in tree bark, among clustered leaves, on a piece of toast, in a cup of coffee, or anywhere else. The best places to look include spots with random patterns, like the grain of plywood or the shapes made by a rock formation.
It’s such a common phenomenon that there are many well-documented instances of pareidolia.
When you look at the Moon, you can see several famous pareidolic images, including the Man in the Moon. The Moon’s smiling face is actually patches of light and dark terrain. Among those spots of light and dark, people have seen a variety of different things, including a man with a rifle and dog, a rabbit, and a woman. There are even some fascinating images of faces on Mars.
Pluto on Pluto?
In fact, the images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is another example of pareidolia. Some say they see a heart, others say they see the cartoon character, Pluto! What do you see? Tell us in the comments below!
Examples of pareidolia are all around us. In fact, wherever you are, you can probably look up and seen an object in the clouds right now!
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.