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Metaphysics & Psychology

Pareidolia

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The face on Mars.
The infamous 'Face on Mars'. Image Credit: NASA
FACTUAL ANALYSIS: Pareidolia is an established and well understand phenomenon.
Pareidolia is the tendency for the human brain to see meaningful shapes (especially faces and human-like forms) in abstract patterns.

Scientists generally believe that this phenomenon is an evolutionary adaptation that enables us to pick out human faces from the enormous amount of visual information that our brain is bombarded with as we go about our daily lives.

Examples

One of the most widely reported examples of pareidolia was the Face on Mars (pictured above) - a rock formation that was photographed in the planet's Cydonia region by NASA's Viking spacecraft in the 1970s.

At the time and for some years after, people speculated that the formation - which looked uncannily like a humanoid face - was an extraterrestrial structure, perhaps a statue exhibiting what their race looked like.

When a succession of spacecraft equipped with much more sophisticated cameras visited Mars in the late 90s and early 2000s, however, new high-resolution images taken from multiple angles revealed that the 'face' was in fact nothing more than a geological formation that had only looked like a face when viewed from certain angles and under certain light conditions.

Other examples of pareidolia can be found just about everywhere, from electrical outlets in the home to the clouds in the sky - it's a phenomenon that can crop up anytime, anywhere.
Pareidolia in paranormal images

When we talk about pareidolia in paranormal photographs, there tend to be two main categories.

The first, like the Face on Mars, will be clearly visible to the majority of people viewing the image. The presence of the anomaly will be objective and undeniable, though the interpretation of that anomaly may differ. Just like when a group of people look up at the clouds, some may see a face, some may see a dog - it's all down to the individual and how they are perceiving those shapes.

The second category of pareidolia is perhaps less common. In such cases, the presence of an anomaly will be highly subjective to the individual and not at all obvious to anyone else. Most observers will typically argue that there is nothing there at all, even when the anomaly is directly pointed out to them.

Such photographs may contain blotches, streaks, patterns or even digital artifacts (especially if the image has been zoomed in or heavily reprocessed) that have been interpreted as significant, often with the submitter circling a part of the image where they believe such patterns form the shape of a face or figure.

The problem can be exacerbated by the observer's unwavering certainty that the pareidolic face or figure is present in the image. Some are unaware of the concept of pareidolia and are hostile to the notion that they are simply interpreting random shapes and patterns as something significant.

It is not unheard of for someone to insist that they "do not suffer from" pareidolia, not realizing that - far from being some sort of illness - it is simply the brain's innate ability to pick out human-like forms.

For the reasons above, pareidolia should always be taken into account when analyzing photographs.

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