The horse was huge.
Flowing mane. Flaring nostrils. Plunging hooves.
Pulling what looked like a chariot. A chariot ready to crash, throwing its driver over the side.
The sight astounded and mesmerized me.
I was so mesmerized that I nearly rear-ended the car in front of me.
Because, you see, this horse and chariot were in the sky. Or more precisely, in the billowing clouds overhead as I drove over a bridge during rush hour.
Fortunately my brain was not completely immersed in this celestial vision. I braked hard just in time. But it was a near thing. No more cloud gazing for me in bumper-to-bumper traffic!
Like many people, I often see very detailed, often story-themed pictures in clouds. Or on wallpaper. Or in a pile of leaves and twigs.
This common brain trick is called pareidolia.
Pareidolia is “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningless image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern” , according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
What is one of the most common examples of pareidolia? That wistful, somewhat lopsided face of the man in the moon that people have been “seeing” since humans started looking skyward at night.
This tendency to look for recognizable patterns, and especially for faces, would have been very helpful for early humans. Men and women, all senses keenly alert as they stepped out of the security of their caves, would strain to identify and remember what was safe and what was deadly.
Our very earliest ancestors were threatened with danger and death at every turn. Even if we don’t need to be on the lookout for saber-tooth tigers any more, modern humans still retain the subconscious ability to search for and find recognizable signs and patterns in inanimate objects.
Psychologists have tapped into our pareidolian instinct by developing tests based on the response of individuals to various standardized images. For example, we are all familiar with, and probably some of us have taken Rorshach tests, also known as inkblot tests.
What do you see when you look at the image, above?
There are no right or wrong answers! In fact, the usefulness of Rorshach tests and similar imagery is widely questioned today, although they continue to fascinate us.
I love looking at these tests and imagining all kinds of stories. I think by using ink blots or other visual perception tests, we could all find some great creative prompts.
Although pareidolia is usually connected with visual imagery, it can also be associated with auditory perceptions. For example, I live on property surrounded by very tall oak and maple trees. In the summer when the wind is surfing through the full-leaved branches, it sounds to me exactly like ocean waves crashing on a beach.
I hear these waves whether I am consciously thinking of them or not, even though I do not live near the ocean. Pareidolia transports me every warm, windy night to the surf and stars on a deserted beach.
Usually people perceive different images when they look at an object. One person might look at spilled milk and see a map of India, while another might see a hornets’ nest in the same spill.
But sometimes a certain object seems to generate the same or similar impressions in a large group of people.
There are people who take pictures and post images on the Internet of a potato that seems to have the face of a crabby old man. Another misshapen vegetable might conjure up images of a saintly face or a popular movie star.
In some cases people can make quite a bit of money selling organic or other objects that look like popular or religious images.
The most famous example happened in 2004 when Florida resident Diane Duyser sold an old toasted cheese sandwich for $28,000 because she and many others believed it presented an exceptional image of the face of the Virgin Mary.
Countless generations of people have believed that the Shroud of Turin shows the face of Jesus. Others believe the shroud is an excellent example of pareidolia.
Shroud of Turin
The Shroud of Turin, also called the Turin Shroud ( Italian: Sindone di Torino, Sacra Sindone [ˈsaːkra ˈsindone] or…
Is the Shroud of Turin an example of faith, or perception, being in the eye of the beholder? Who knows?
All I know for sure is that I have enjoyed the experience of pareidolia in my own life and have since I was a child.
I will continue to be enchanted by the people, animals, and stories I see when I gaze at the clouds overhead.
I will just be careful not to get too caught up again in pareidolia during rush hour!