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Pareidolia and Apophenia Explained

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I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!

Do you see soapy water going down the sink or an eye?

Do you see soapy water going down the sink or an eye?

Pareidolia and Imaginary Monsters

Have you ever looked at a photograph and been convinced that you can see someone in the picture that definitely wasn’t there when you took it?

Or maybe you can see someone hiding in the trees?

A shape of a person skulking in the shadows?

You aren’t on your own, this happens to us all the time. I remember as a child, lying awake in bed looking at my curtains and seeing faces in the pattern of the fabric that looked like monsters.

We see faces in clouds and all manner of inanimate objects in our day to day life, but don’t worry as this is not a sign of madness. It is, rather, a sign of a very imaginative and creative mind.

People who study the paranormal come across this phenomenon all the time and are forever having to explain it to people who claim there is a ghostly figure in their photographs or videos. It can be quite frustrating when people insist that it’s a ghost and your explanation is brushed off because they are ‘believers’ in the spirit world.

The problem is, that when a rational explanation is denied, it drags down the chances of paranormal research ever being taken seriously.

One of the most famous examples of pareidolia being used in psychological evaluation is the Rorschach inkblot test, where random inkblots are given to the person being assessed and they are then asked to say what they see.

Often this will involve the person seeing animals or faces or familiar shapes.

Rorschach test: I see an alien with big black eyes, its arms held aloft and antlers protruding from its head... yes, seriously.

Rorschach test: I see an alien with big black eyes, its arms held aloft and antlers protruding from its head... yes, seriously.

Apophenia and Pattern Recognition

Pareidolia is a well-established concept within the more general term of apophenia.

Apophenia is the seeing of patterns in objects and linking it with preconceived ideas that someone already holds and is merely the brain's way of trying to make sense of what it sees—a process that takes place in the temporal lobe area of the brain.

We know this is so because it has been seen that people suffering damage to this part of the brain have sometimes lost the ability to recognise people.

Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, conducted a study into apophenia and the results indicated that high levels of dopamine can increase the likelihood of finding meaning, patterns or significance where none exist and this results in a higher tendency to believe in ghosts or alien encounters, for example.


Evolutionary Reasons

Facial recognition is important to us in everyday life and is probably an evolutionary remnant, leaving the brain hard-wired to help us achieve this.

The sadly departed astronomer, Carl Sagan commented on his belief that pareidolia is an evolutionary remnant when, in 1995, he said:

"As soon as the infant can see, it recognises faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognise a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face and to respond with a goony grin".

Have a look at the following examples and see if your brain works this way or not. Do you initially see faces or inanimate objects?

Faces in Inanimate Objects?

Faces in Inanimate Objects?

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition is an important part of human society.

Being able to recognise each other and understand moods by reading the expression on someone's face can be of huge importance.

Auditory Pareidolia

The same processes can also hold true with sound.

Auditory pareidolia is when we hear a random noise and perceive words from the erratic jumble of sounds.

For instance, in the paranormal field, EVP’s or ‘electronic voice phenomenon’ are often recorded whilst investigating.

What sounds like words can often be picked up by the electronic recorders used—even more so if the power of suggestion is used in conjunction with your first hearing the recording.

If someone was to say “listen to this, can you hear the words ‘I’m coming to get you?’ then the chances are that’s exactly what you will hear, or something very similar.

Watch and listen to the following video and see what your brain hears—is it altered by what you are told it says?

'Exploding Head Syndrome'

Another example of auditory pareidolia is a little more alarming to the person experiencing it.

It is called "exploding head syndrome" and often occurs as a person is falling asleep or on the verge of waking up. A sudden banging sound is heard that resembles cymbals crashing, or a gunshot sound.

Typically brief in duration it is nonetheless pretty upsetting and can cause the victim to wake suddenly in a state of panic, convinced that something bad has just happened.

I myself have had this happen to me on a couple of occasions and I can vouch for the distress, albeit momentary, that it can cause. There is no known reason for this psychological phenomenon as of yet, but it appears to be harmless in nature.

I have found that on the few occasions I have heard it, it has been when I have been overly tired. Having been a night shift worker for many years, there have been times when I have stayed awake for longer than is 'normal' in order to go somewhere the next day, and this can result in being awake for 30+ hours.

These are the times when I have experienced it, so it is my belief that it could be related to sleep deprivation or stress placed on an exhausted brain, but that is my opinion only.

In fact, it is fair to say that a lot of 'paranormal' experiences occur when a person is tired, going to sleep or waking up.

Eerie looking flower, but it is just pareidolia and if seen from a different angle it would look entirely normal.

Eerie looking flower, but it is just pareidolia and if seen from a different angle it would look entirely normal.

When Apophenia and Pareidolia Combine

When apophenia and pareidolia combine, the experience is heightened.

For example, if someone sees something that looks to them like a UFO in the sky, it is pareidolia, but if that same person believes the UFO has chosen them as a subject for experimentation, or maybe as a means to communicate with the human race, then that is apophenia combined with pareidolia.

Another well-known example of this usually comes in religious circles.

If someone sees an image of Jesus Christ on their toast, that is pareidolia, but if they then go on to believe that it is God’s way of giving them a message, then that is apophenia again.

In paranormal circles, the same thing can happen when a loved one passes and the bereaved family member or friend could start to connect random events as signs of their passed over father or friend etc. as giving them signs or messages that they are ok, or need to pass on a message to them.

A satellite photo of a mesa in Cydonia, often called the Face on Mars. Later imagery from other angles did not include the shadows.

A satellite photo of a mesa in Cydonia, often called the Face on Mars. Later imagery from other angles did not include the shadows.

In Conclusion

I hope that you have found this article informative and that next time you see a face in the dark shadows of your bedroom, it may bring you some comfort to know that it is far more likely to be pareidolia than a demon from hell.

Whilst it may be nice to believe that we are getting messages from our departed loved ones in the form of random signs, I personally find it even more comforting to know that there is a scientific or psychological explanation for experiencing these interpretations of jumbled images and our interpretations of them.

I do not wish to categorically deny the existence of spirits because no one can definitively say that and know they are 100% correct, but what we can say with some assuredness is that pareidolia, both visual and auditory, explain away quite a lot of what people have interpreted as 'experiences' as ghostly sights and sounds.

Additional Reading on Facial Recognition in Anthropology

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Ian


Kevin on July 24, 2020:

I know I am not crazy because I have photos with actual license plate numbers in “magic eye” and trees all of a sudden appearing. What is that considered?

TS on June 23, 2020:

I see them every day in everything I have for three years now and I don’t know what to do I’ve been to the hospital 10 times in four months going limp Passing out and feel like my head is detaching from my body. I don’t know what to do. They are real and move around every where.

Lehua on June 12, 2020:

Thank you so much. Now i know i am NOT CRAZY and this is


"FACIAL IMAGES" in most objects I DEEPLY FOCUS ON. AT TIMES I CALL ON ONE OF MY KIDS TO LOOK AT THE SAME OBJECT TO FIND OUT WHAT THEY SEE WHEN THEY LOOK AT THE OBJECT. MY DAUGHTER IS USUALLY THE ONE THAT NOTICES, IMMEDIATELY, THE EXACT SAME "FACIAL IMAGE" THAT I SEE. MY 2 SONS TAKE A WHILE FOR THEM TO SEE THE "FACIAL IMAGES" WITHIN THE OBJECT. MOST TIMES I SEE THE SAME IMAGE....AND ITS USUALLY THE FACIAL IMAGE OF MY DAD (clear image), my oldest brother (somewhat a clear image), and recently, my mom (her images are vague but after focusing harder, i get a clearer image) oldest brother passed in 1985 in an auto accident, he was the passenger, both my brother & driver were intoxicated, but my brother died upon impact, and the driver survived. My dad passed in 2014, he fell in bumped his head. Because he was on blood thinners, he had a blood clot that was putting pressure on his brain. He passed approx 6 days after being rushed to ER. And my mother passed Easter morning 2019 due to Congestive heart failure, AFib, diabetes, and HIGH bP, and was a recent LEFT LEG BELOW KNEE AMPUTEE. I interpret my viewings of these facial images as SIGNS from my Dad, brother, n mom.

Ian (author) from Durham on May 06, 2019:

Hi Sarah, appreciate the feedback and it's good to hear that the way I wrote it is easy to grasp. Thank you :)

Sarah B. on May 05, 2019:

Very informative read! I appreciate how you broke down the different types and combinations of pareidolia and apophenia. Found this article after watching a certain YouTube video and became perplexed about the Jesus-in-toast-and-also-everything...thing. Thanks!

Ian (author) from Durham on March 31, 2019:

You are welcome Ashutosh! Thank you for the feedback, I appreciate it.

Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on March 31, 2019:

This was easy to grasp and very much relatable. I am aware of the term now. Thank you!