Ever look up at the sky and see animals or faces in the clouds? Or take a piece of toast out of the toaster and see an image of the Virgin Mary? No you are not having a religious epiphany. You are experiencing the very normal psychological phenomenon called pareidolia — the perception of familiar shapes from random stimuli or information. Given random patterns, the brain tries to make sense of it, imposing familiar shapes out of a vast database of stored images. The word is derived from the Greek words para (meaning “amiss”) and eidolia (meaning “image”). One of the most well-know examples of pareidolia is the Face on Mars, created by the pattern of shadows and light on a mountain in the mesa of Cydonia on the surface of Mars. Pareidolia is also at the heart of the Rorschach test that asks subjects to make sense of random inkblot images in order to assess a person’s mental state.
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