Human faces don’t normally belong on clouds or slices of toast. Potatoes are not seals. And peppers don’t usually look like they need a little hug.
But the human mind has a tendency to perceive something as significant or meaningful, even if what we actually see or hear is vague or ambiguous. And looking at these images, you likely saw something that was not really there.
This phenomenon is known as pareidolia, which comes from the Greek words “para,” meaning beside, and “eidolon,” meaning image or form. Once considered exclusively a symptom of psychosis, pareidolia is now recognized as part of the normal human experience. In particular, our brains have evolved to detect faces quickly, which explains the human tendency to see faces everywhere, including in inanimate objects like electrical outlets or slices of toast. But pareidolia can play other visual or auditory tricks on the mind—causing us to see animals, patterns or objects in unexpected places or even hear music or voices where none exist.
Despite how commonplace pareidolia is, scientists still know relatively little about it.
“Pareidolia is something we experience every day, often without realizing it,” said Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics. “By improving our understanding of this phenomenon, we can potentially use it as a skill for enhancing creativity, as a tool for mental health diagnoses and even as a way of understanding how our brains construct our conscious experience.”
To help bridge the gaps in understanding, IAM Lab will conduct a literature review of existing pareidolia research and identify open questions in the field. It will also organize stakeholder gatherings with researchers and assemble a global advisory board to further scientific understanding of pareidolia. The research initiative was inspired by the work of expert Pat Bernstein, who runs a program that explores pareidolia experiences in nature called Blink to See.
Pareidolia can be used as a window into the mind’s eye, offering clues about how the brain perceives what we sense in the world through our vision and hearing. IAM Lab will investigate insights into the role that individual differences in personality, creativity, and mood play in our experiences of pareidolia.
The literature review will also examine research using pareidolia to test or even diagnose different brain disorders. Previous research has already used pareidolia-inducing images to investigate the neural basis of hallucinations, for example, and there may be differences in how patients with neurological disorders like dementia or schizophrenia respond to pareidolia tests.
Nathan Heller, a PhD candidate at Dartmouth University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will lead the team of researchers from IAM Lab and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Alexander Pantelyat, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Atypical Parkinsonism Center, and Vidya Kamath, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will assist with the design and implementation of the scoping review, focusing on the efficacy of pareidolia tests in both healthy and clinical populations.
As part of a larger pareidolia initiative across Johns Hopkins research institutions, IAM Lab will also collaborate with Ed Connor, professor of neuroscience and director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute. Connor will investigate the underlying neural mechanisms and stages of visual pareidolia, helping to inform and inspire future exploration of its value as a tool for health and wellbeing.
Lead Images: u/Petaaa, u/Amberlynn585, and u/furie1335 | Reddit