Faces All Around: Understanding Pareidolia And How It Works

What is something that is common at all those supposedly haunted places? 

All of them are dark, noisy, and have a lot of ambiguous stimuli. These are picture-perfect for the occurrence of a process termed pareidolia. 

Have you ever looked up at the sky and seen a cloud that looked just like a face or animal? Or maybe you looked at a photograph and noticed a face that wasn’t there? Or have you ever listened to a voice note and heard something that wasn’t said at all?

This phenomenon of seeing faces and perceiving random noises is pareidolia. It is the construction of familiar patterns in random stimuli around you. While it is generally associated with visual patterns, the term is also used while referring to other sensory patterns like sound. In the case of sound patterns, it is called auditory pareidolia. 

It is easy to discard pareidolia as some sort of funny optical illusion or, even worse, a psychotic delusion. However, a growing body of research says that pareidolia is the key to understanding how the human mind works to process our outer surroundings.

On that note, let’s dive deeper into pareidolia and understand how the phenomenon works.

Why Does Pareidolia Occur?

To put it simply, there is nothing wrong with seeing faces in clouds or toasts. It is just a by-product of our extremely evolved and dynamic perception system. Our skills in this particular department are so strong that even high-quality supercomputers would struggle to match them. 

Now there are three main neurological reasons why we create patterns out of random stimuli. Let’s take a look.

1. Parallel Processing

You see, unlike computers, human brains are programmed to carry out massive parallel processes. This makes our brains the perfect field for churning out patterns and making associations while navigating through large amounts of data.

2. Human Perception

The second reason for pareidolia to occur is human perception. Our perception is an active constructive phenomenon. A chunk of this process is taking a picture of our surroundings and then quickly stifling through the catalogues in our memory to find the most suitable match for it. So when a blob looks like a horse, your brain automatically matches it to a horse and additionally adds more details to make it seem even more like a horse. 

Expectations play a pretty huge role in this process. So when a person tells you, “Do you see a beast in the clouds? That’s its tail,” this image pops into your head. Now that your brain has found a set pattern, it starts constructing that image. 

In the same way, if someone tells you that if you listen to a particular song backwards, you will hear something different, then most probably you will.

3. Evolutionary Perspective

Do you know that our affinity for seeing faces comes from a neurological region in the brain? The fusiform face area is a part of the brain’s visual association cortex. This area specifically works on remembering and recognizing faces. 

Evolution has favoured this particular ability in humans because we are a social species. Our ancestors who easily identified between friends and enemies or saw the face of the lion in the grass had better chances of survival. Since humans were periodically hunter-gatherers, such a survival instinct was necessary.

Read more: 7 Unusual Psychological Disorders You Probably Didn’t Know About

Is Pareidolia A Mental Disorder?

Pareidolia was once considered a symptom of psychosis. While it is now considered a part of regular human experiences, studies indicated that a higher tendency for pareidolia might be a sign of a significant mental or neurological disorder. 

As per research published on Frontiers, pareidolia is associated with the following conditions:

  • schizophrenia,
  • bipolar disorder, and
  • dementia.

Read more: Best Online Therapy Platforms – 6 Easy-To-Use And Affordable Sites


If you have ever seen faces in clouds and toasts or heard something that doesn’t exist, you have experienced the phenomenon of pareidolia. Pareidolia is associated with the neurological functioning of the human brain and can be explained through evolution. While it is part of the human experiences, the process is also associated with certain mental disorders. 

Just like pareidolia, there are countless other brain processes and disorders unknown to most of us. Do you know that there is a condition that leaves humans blind in the mind? Yes! It is called aphantasia. To learn more about it, click here.

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