(Revised and edited version on EarthSky: http://earthsky.org/human-world/seeing-things-that-arent-there)
Can you see a colorful bird in flight in the photo here? Actually, it is a a photo of the aurora borealis taken on the 26th of March this year near Fairbanks, Alaska by Dave Bachrach (photo used with permission).
(Click on any photo for a larger version.)
Seeing apparently meaningful connections between unrelated patterns, data or phenomena is called apophenia. Specifically, seeing recognizable objects or phenomena in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia, although the common everyday variety hardly warrants such a grandiose name. Perhaps you have seen the proverbial bunny in a patch of clouds, or a clown’s face in a mud splatter on the side of your car. Everyone has this ability, although it is more developed in some people and less in others.
You probably have seen photos claimed to be images of Jesus in a piece of toast, or the Madonna in the misshapen form of a gourd, or some mystical symbol in a reflection on a wall. Although intrinsically meaningless, such images are sometimes striking. More often, though, the similarity to known persons, animals or objects is a bit more subtle.
What can you see in the folds of this tissue? Many people will not see anything. It depends, in part, on the observer’s innate ability to detect patterns, and in part on the natural inclinations and interests of the viewer. In some cases the image will immediately pop out, while for some folks it will come after a little close examination. Others may not be able to see it at all.
To a certain extent, the definition of pareidolia can be used to describe how the ancients connected the dots to come up with the patterns we know as constellations. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see a lion in Leo, a scorpion in Scorpius, or a mighty hunter in Orion. (To be honest, many other constellations, such as Cancer the Crab or Capricornus the Sea Goat, stretch the pattern recognition idea a bit far, making the naming process more one of contrivance than of pareidolia.)
For ages, people have seen the “Man in the Moon” or any of a variety of other figures on the face of the lunar orb. Today, technology has given us close-ups of other planets that serve as fodder for even more spectacular interpretations by the pareidolia monster. For example, some self-appointed experts have interpreted this image as showing large glass tunnels on Mars, or even evidence for “ice worms” on the Red Planet. The image, which is an enlargement of a small section of image M0400291 taken by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, shows a convergence of deep canyons. At the bottom of these canyons are crescent-shaped sand dunes, which are formed when the wind is predominantly in one direction. Such dunes are common in desert areas of the Earth and are known as “barchans.” The overall effect looks 3 dimensional, but in reality the curved ribs on low-lying dunes on the canyon floor.
Many viewers will immediately see the image of a bearded man with wavy hair, which could be interpreted as Jesus, near the left center of the image. In fact, however, the face is just a phenomenon of light, shadow and placement. The “face” of Jesus is actually a child with a bonnet, whereas the hair is vegetation in the background.
Although deliberately manipulated photos (“photoshopped”) are very easily made today and cannot be ruled out for many pareidolia images, hoaxes are considerably less likely in older images.
Consider the old Swedish image above in which the “face” of Jesus is actually a baby with a bonnet. Or consider this image from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, shot by Hiromichi Matsuda, showing the mushroom cloud over the city just 20 minutes after detonation. (Click for a larger image.)
With just a casual glance, most people will notice nothing in the bomb cloud other than the expected shape. But for someone with an eye for pareidolic images, several things can pop out. Let’s consider just one, that being the head of an apparently sleeping woman with 1940s-style hair, facing the right from just left of the top center area of the cloud.
Go ahead, try to see the lady’s face before you look farther down (an annotated image is provided at the end of the blog). Truth be told, there are a number of things to be seen in this image, but the point to make is that these are all purely coincidental. There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of the images have any meaning whatsoever except the meaning that an active and creative mind may give them. They are not symbols or signs from the spirit world. They are not warnings about the future or indications of the waywardness of our ways. They are simply the result of coincidental patterns that the human mind chooses to interpret in particular ways.
(This just happens to be a photo from the tragic bombing of Nagasaki, but the pareidolic image has nothing else to do with Nagasaki or even with the atomic bomb. Similar patterns can be found in many many other images and natural formations.)
In some ways, the pareidolic images we discover tend to indicate things about which we are most interested, whether they be people, puppies or planes. Finding such “embedded” images can fun and interesting, almost a hobby for some. But for some they can also fuel obsessiveness and paranoia. Enjoy finding your own pareidolic images, but remember that what you are seeing is not really there, but in your mind.
Dave Bacharach’s aurora photos: http://is.gd/VBUzII
Apache head: http://is.gd/uSaWmH
MGS M0400291: http://is.gd/SEHDwJ
Old photo from Sweden: http://is.gd/eZyr9w
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Cloud: http://is.gd/7uozGO