When to Call it Pareidolia


Some call it pareidolia, others matrixing and some apophenia: It is a human’s ability to see meaningful patterns in random data. It is when you see a face in some dead leaves or a picture of the Virgin Mary in a piece toast. This is when random variables align to create something that, to us, looks  meaningful or intentional, but really we just got lucky. 

Pareidolia a valid explanation for many Cases where faces or bodies are seen in random patterns. Many people see patterns in trees, windows, rock formations and think there is a mysterious cause. Often the cause is simply an alignment of random events to create something that looks meaningful to us humans. But this is a double-edged sword. Pareidolia can be used incorrectly to dismiss claims that deserve more scrutiny, or at least a label of unexplained so far. 

So when should we call it pareidolia and when is further investigation warranted? Here are my guidelines:

 It is Very Likely Pareidolia When…

  1. It is a lasting or permanent phenomena that can be witnessed by others. For example a face in a rock formation would be permanent: You can bring other people to see it, take video of it, and take photographs from different angles of it. A fleeting glimpse of a face in a window would not be permanent.
  2. Does it move as other objects move? This is the exception to rule number 1. If the object appears to move as other objects move, pareidolia could be a good explanation. Your perspective may change your ability to witness the phenomenon. As you move, from one angle you may be able to see a face, but from a slightly different angle it may disappear. Also be mindful of light sources. As light sources move they can throw shadows that have the appearance of movement. 
  3. It does not contrast greatly with background or noise. This is a big one! A face in a window with colors and shapes that appear radically different from the camera noise and compression artifacts would be significant. In other words does it really stand out or does it just look like we got lucky? See the example image below.
  4. Pareidolia matches the details of the situation and/or location. For example a daylight sighting of something strange in a high traffic area should be witnessed by other people. If a strange face or apparition is recorded where people typically visit, it is reasonable to believe other people may have seen it as well. The exception is if the sighting is in an obscure place where people don’t normally look, like the ceiling of a hallway. If further research shows this is the first sighting, pareidolia may be unlikely. More investigation is needed.

See the face in the upper left? Notice how the colors of the face and shapes are not significantly different from other artifacts in the window. This is a good example of rule 3.

This image was taken at Dudley Castle. Pareidolia is not a reasonable explanation without more investigation. The apparition is different than the background, has defined features, was not fixed and was only recorded once even though this is a popular tourist destination.