The Joy of Pareidolia

Alien World or Spilled Mocha Latte?

When we look at the clouds, we might see something other than clouds. We might see a dragon drifting along, or maybe some puppies biting at its heels. We might see a sports car that over time shifts into something more like a duck. Some of us enjoy sitting back and gazing at the sky to guess at the shapes, and this brings us joy.

If you’re in a bad mood, you might say, “It’s just clouds, stupid. There’s nothing else there.”

But let’s imagine we’re trying to find some small joy. Even if it’s not really there.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon where the human imagination sees organized shapes and figures in otherwise unrelated objects or patterns. In the cloud examples above, we can fancifully let our minds be fooled for fun, even consciously.

Other times, we don’t even notice we are being deceived. For example, take the photo of the “Face” on Mars, which for decades fueled imagination that aliens indeed lived or had lived on our red neighbor.

The “Face” on Mars, taken in 1976
Clearer photo of the “Face”, taken in 2001

Pareidolia many times shows us faces where there are none. And the phenomenon does seem to be related to artistic representation of objects, such as faces. Take the shape below:


This is the universally recognized “happy face”. But is it any more of a face than the “face” on Mars?

The difference here is that the artist meant to have these lines and curves represent a face, whereas the face on Mars was not designed to be one. They are both illusions, but the smiley is intentional.

Now let’s turn to my photo at the beginning. Before the alien world came to be, this is what it looked like:

A Mocha Latte with Almond Milk. My face mask laid beside it happens to establish scale.

After an unintentional knock of the table by my knee:

What a mess

But then pareidolia kicked in. I saw planetary features represented by the coffee, like land and sea on a map. I cropped the picture to enhance the illusion, thereby adding some intentional design to the otherwise disorganized patterns. In this way, I was trying to share the illusion in my mind’s eye with you:

Pareidolia mixes into art

Incidentally, I see some kind of alien face near the top left now! Do you?

Although the spilled coffee did not bring me joy, the moments of musing on a caffeinated alien landscape brought me a little. And here I am, sharing this fun nonsense with you. You could say I need to get my head out of the clouds.

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