Pareidolia is a condition whereby one perceives familiar patterns in inanimate objects. One of the most common examples is seeing faces. This is known as facial pareidolia. Once thought to be the result of a mental illness or an overactive imagination, more recent research suggests that it may actually be a sign of a well-functioning brain.
The authors of a paper called "Seeing Jesus in Toast," which documents a study of facial pareidolia, put it this way: "The tendency to detect faces in ambiguous visual information is perhaps highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face."
It can be argued that once you start looking for faces in objects you start seeing them. For most people if someone points out a face that they see in an object, and it even remotely resembles a face, the other person will see it, too. Everyone readily identifies two circles with a slash below, such as with the happy face symbol, as a face.
This is not what it is like for a person with facial pareidolia, however. For a person with this condition, faces appear everywhere—in all manner of inanimate objects, in anything that has a pattern, in any play of light and shadow. They cannot help seeing faces. Most of the time they wish they could stop seeing them. I know, because I have had this condition my entire life.
Growing up with Facial Pareidolia
I have never seen the face of Jesus looking back at me from a slice of toast, nor Elvis in an oil slick in the driveway, but I have seen a lot of faces in a great deal of unusual places over the past 50 years or so.
I remember as a young child seeing faces in everything from the pattern in the tiles on the kitchen floor to the play of light and shadow on a wrinkled bed sheet. Faces like the ones in the bed sheet were, of course, temporary due to the fact that bed sheets were constantly moved and rearranged, and the position of light and shadow were always changing, but the faces like the one in the kitchen tiles were more or less permanent and became like friends to the young me who saw them every day.
The one in the kitchen tiles I remember as resembling a small child that, for some reason, I recall as being around my own age even though I saw it over the course of several years, and there is no way that it could have aged along with me. There were several others that I regularly saw around the house and actually looked forward to seeing, including my favorite, a crescent-shaped face in profile that I called the man in the moon, that was formed by some slight damage to my bedroom wall, that I used to talk to on a regular basis. I considered these friends.
Along with these, there were also some that I did not consider friends, and that actually scared me. There was one in particular that existed on the tile in our shower that just terrified me. He had long hair, a big nose, a large, bushy beard, and looked extremely angry and dangerous. This guy would be staring at me every time I took a bath. I used to hang a face cloth from the taps so that it dangled down and covered the menacing face.
For the most part though I enjoyed the company of these constant companions. I also learned early on to keep them to myself as I was the only one seeing them. I recall trying to point them out to my parents a couple of times but they thought there was something wrong with me and hoped I would grow out of it, which I quickly led them to believe I had. Given their reaction I choose not to share anything about it with my siblings.
Thanks a Lot, Charles Dickens
Then when I was about eight or nine years old everything about having facial pareidolia changed for me. It went from being a fun little secret that I had to something that terrified me. One Christmas Eve I was watching an old black and white version of a Christmas Carol on TV, the one with Alistair Sim, when I saw the face of the seven years dead Bob Marley materialize in Scrooge's door knocker. For the next few years after I thought that all these faces that I was seeing were ghosts that were for some reason sent to haunt me. It was a terrible and frightening experience. During this time I tried so very hard to stop seeing the faces but could not.
Sometime in my early teens I just stopped believing that these were other worldly beings sent for my reclamation and understood that, for some reason, I just had an uncanny ability to see faces. It stopped being frightening, though I was still startled from time to time when unexpectedly confronted by an unpleasant face in the steam on the bathroom mirror, or in the folds of my bedroom curtains at dusk. I actually began to enjoy it again. I didn't go back to thinking of them as friends or start talking to them again, but I did, and still do, like seeing them, even the occasional frightening ones.
Read More From Patientslounge
The Man in The Mountain
Sometimes faces can be so obvious that everyone, even if it takes some pointing out for some, can see them. Such is the case with the "Man in the Mountain", a famous face in the cliff side just outside of Corner Brook, on Newfoundland's west coast. The old man looking down over the Humber River and the highway is something of a tourist attraction.
The first time I saw it I was 12 or 13 years old on a family vacation. My father pulled over in the little viewing area that was there so that we could all have a look. There were a number of other people there as well, everyone trying to see it. I could hear all sorts of comments: "Do you see it?" "No, do you?" "Where is it?" "Is that it?" "There it is, I see it." And on and on. I had only one question which I kept to myself: "Which of these faces do they mean?"
To Share or Not to Share...
There were times over the years when I have been tempted to share, and point out to somebody else a face I was seeing, especially if I thought it was really easy to see or looked like someone familiar, but I always ended up deciding against it. Even though I have had this all my life it was only in the last few years that I found out that this condition has a name, and that many other people have it as well. Even with this knowledge I was reluctant to share. I guess the secret is out now.
Were you able to see many or even all of the faces in the pictures in this article without them being pointed out to you? Do you see faces in all sorts of places and patterns—in reflections, and in the play between light and shadow? There is a very good chance that you have facial pareidolia. You also now know that you are not alone. Not only do you not have to hide it, but you can now brag about it because it means that you are most likely in possession of a healthy and well-adapted brain.
Liu, Jiangang, et al. "Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia." Cortex. 2014 Apr; 53: 60–77.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Stephen Barnes
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on May 31, 2019:
Hi Antony. I am not sure exactly what you mean by your comment but I am assuming that perhaps you suffer from a worse case of Facial Pareidolia. If this is the case feel free to elaborate here, I am sure readers would be interested, and may find your experience helpful, and may have something to offer you in return.
My name is Antony johansson on May 27, 2019:
U guys have only had a drop of it
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on March 17, 2019:
Hi Miles, thank you for your comments. I have always seen frightening faces, along with the more pleasant, and even friendly ones. When I was a child the frightening faces would scare me but now I just find them interesting.
As to seeing the same face everywhere, this is something entirely different. With facial Pareiodolia you see the “face” that is created by the shapes, patterns, light and shadow, etc. of the surface or object you are looking at, so they are always different. If the face you are seeing is frightening or disturbing to you, and the vision persists, you may want to speak to someone about it. A professional with the education and experience to understand what is happening here may be able to help.
I hope this was helpful.
Miles on March 15, 2019:
Hey I'm really glad I found this. This seems to be the only article on the internet that talks about pareiodolia in a serious way. How do you cope with the more frightening/intense faces? I've been dealing with the same face everywhere I look and I find it impossible to ignore. I spend most of my day just ...looking at it. I really don't know what to do anymore! It feels malicious and it looks unsettling. When I was a kid the faces were more whimsical or interesting, but now they are just scary. Thank you for writing this, its nice to see it talked about.
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on April 18, 2018:
Just about everyone does see faces in inanimate objects and random patterns. Out minds are geared for facial recognition. For those with facial pareidolia it is just much more intense. Where most people have to try hard to find the faces in the patterns, even when they are pointed out to them, those of us with facial pareidolia have to try hard not to see them. Recently pareidolia has become the subject of an exhibition at the Akron Museum of Art, called "Find A Face".
On the other side of this phenomena is a condition known as facial agnosia, where by the sufferer has no facial recognition. They cannot even recognize the faces of family and loved ones. Some cannot even recognize their own faces.
RedElf from Canada on April 18, 2018:
I thought everyone saw faces... didn't think it was a condition, though. As a child, I saw scary faces in the bathroom tile (mottled pattern). I try not to see them there now because it's very hard to un-see them once you notice them. Glad to know it's a sign of a healthily functioning brain. And car faces are just fun - even the scowly ones :)
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on December 26, 2017:
That's great, thanks. I will add the image to the article shortly.
Ron Senack on December 24, 2017:
Was having problems with the email it wasn't showing were to send it. So I left the bark image on your face book. If there is a different image that you would like to post let me know and I will send a copy, thanks.
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on December 24, 2017:
Hi Ron. Thanks for your comments. I checked out your facebook page, your pictures are fascinating. I am now a follower. If you want to send along a pic you can email me directly from the contact author link at the top of this article. I would love to add one or two of your pictures to this piece.
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on August 13, 2017:
This is more common then most people think, as we are built to recognizes faces, but for some of us, like yourself, we see them everywhere. It's not so bad once you get use to it though, and knowing now that it is a sign of a strong, healthy brain makes even easier to live with.
jocelyn on August 12, 2017:
I have experienced facial pareidolia for my entire life...I can see a face or an object everywhere, on the wall, in the wood, in the fabric, in the cloud, etc....
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on June 18, 2017:
The upside maria, you're never alone.
Maria Gorman on June 18, 2017:
Ineed help im seeing faces
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on April 04, 2017:
Thank you Mary. I had never heard of the term myself until a few years ago, nor was I aware that it was a known and documented condition. It's nice to know but not really important to me at this stage of my life. Sure would have been nice to have this information 40 years ago though.
Mary Wickison from USA on April 03, 2017:
I had never heard the term before or known that this occurred.
Of course, there are a few like the lights and grilles on cars which are easy to see. I know there use to be a set of tiles in the UK which looked like a chicken. Or Artex on the ceiling.
I can see where this could have been problematic growing up.
I would say it is a highly active brain function. Similar to how artists can see details others can't.
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on April 03, 2017:
Thank you Rogers, I'm pleased that you found it informative.
Rogers Olare on April 03, 2017:
This article is so educative. I must admit that before I read this post, I had no idea what Pareidolia was. Thanks to your article.