Anne here, and today I'm talking about a new-to-me word — pareidolia. I came across it the other day and, being unable to work out its meaning from the context, had to look it up. Thankfully these days it's so easy to look up anything. Not like when I was a child, and my parents would say "work it out yourself or look it up if you can't."
That sounds a bit mean, I know, but it was excellent training. I was a voracious reader from a young age, and was forever coming across new words—lots of Regency-era slang too, when I was reading Georgette Heyer. But I learned to either work it out from the context or look it up in a dictionary, and since I was a bit lazy and wanted to get on with the story, I'd usually work it out from the context. Or skip it. <g>
But this new word intrigued me. Pareidolia—even my word processing program thinks it's a spelling mistake—is something we've all noticed often, and have probably been experiencing since we were small children. We just didn't know it had a name — at least I didn't.
Do you see things that aren't there? That's pareidolia.
Do you use emojis in your texts and emails? Pareidolia again.
Ever lain on the ground, staring up into the sky and picked out people, animals or things from the shape of the clouds? Ever looked at a house or a car and thought it had a face? Looked at a slice of wood and seen something else there in the grain? Yes, people, examples of pareidolia are everywhere.
Have I teased you long enough? Pareidolia is, according to one dictionary definition, "the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern." In other words it's being able to see recognizable patterns or pictures out of random or vague arrangements of shapes, lines, colors, etc. Like these bears in my fence.
The word comes from the German, and is used in psychology — for example the Rorschach inkblot test. But most of us experience it all the time, consciously or unconsciously. There's more about it here.
Babies start to perceive faces from an early age, and this never stops. Our brains are wired to look for patterns and "so eager to spot faces that this accounts for the most common form of pareidolia." The Guardian (2021)
One of my favorite books when I was small was an Australian classic called SnugglePot and Cuddlepie, which was about the adventures of gum-nut babies. The villains in the stories were the big bad banksia men, and I had no trouble at all imagining them. The photo on the left is of a real banksia pod and do you wonder that I can still see a big bad banksia man every time I see a banksia bush?
More examples of pareidolia:
Heikeopsis japonica is a kind of crab native to Japan, with a shell that bears a pattern resembling a human face which is interpreted to be the face of an angry samurai hence the nickname samurai crab.
This painting —The Jurist by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, painted in 1566—might look like a face, but if you look closely, it's actually a collection of fish and poultry. (Click on it to see a larger image)
The advertisement for this teapot was pulled because people thought it looked like Adolf Hitler. Internet discussion of the phenomenon was so intense that the teapot became a collectors' item as "the Hitler teapot."
At Hallowe'en many people decorated their house to look like a face.
Examples of pareidolia are everywhere. Do you have a favorite example that gives you pleasure or entertains you?
(PS is it just me, or has the print on this blog shrunk?)