By Phil Plait | July 31, 2009 2:30 pm

Thanks to my friend Chebutykin, I was pointed at the Faces in Places blog, a paean to pareidolia. It’s a collection of inanimate objects making faces at you. There’s also a Flickr group with zillions more pix.

As I was walking the exhibit hall of Comic Con, I was struck again by our ability to see faces and recognize them in patterns. I was moving along the Artists’ Alley, where artists of all stripes hang their wares for sale. When you see a face painted on canvas, it’s not really a face, of course, yet we recognize it as one. Sometimes they are very realistic, and sometimes they are extremely minimalist.

In fact, the canonical smiley is as minimal as it can be: just two dots and an upward-curved arc underneath. How much less could it be? Yet it is impossible not to see that as a smile; that’s how maniacally hardwired our brains are to see faces.

So the next time someone sees Jesus or Mary or Michael Jackson or Elvis in a wood grain pattern, think on the simple smiley, and remember that our brains are funny, funny things.

And also? Have a nice day.



Comments (17)

  1. I’ve taken two photos like those. One was in a campfire while ghost stories were being told. The other was in Disney World where a cloud looked like (I kid you not) Mickey Mouse. (I didn’t know Disney was *that* good at Hidden Mickeys!) Of course, in both instances, my wife and I see no significance to those “faces” beyond a small bit of amusement and the addition of a funny vacation tale or two to tell.

  2. You have a GREAT WEEKEND !!!! Phil.

    Oh, I saw you on something the other day on NatGeo I think it was a Hubble thing. My wife was walking through the room, you came on and I yelled “Hey! it’s the Bad Astronomer!” I have been trying to get her to read your blogs, both here and on SkepticBlog.. now I finally think she will.

    c ya

  3. dragonet2

    I’ve got a shower curtain that if you look at it at the right angle, kind of looks like faces. But I can see them everywhere so I’m just good at picking out that pattern. On the other hand, I’m not likely to make much of them either.

  4. SpaceBooks

    This reminds me of one of the early chapters in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.”

  5. GJeff

    Ref: 1. TechyDad: I know about Hidden Mickeys. I snuck one full of Scotch into a college football game. Not the same type of Hidden Mickey that you would find at W. Disney World. ;~)

  6. David

    I was also going to bring up Scott McCloud’s book “Understanding Comics.” I highly recommend the second chapter (I think that’s the one), which relates directly to this topic. The only thing on-line I can find that brushes on it is McCloud’s “Big Triangle” at

  7. Jack Mitcham

    I chose apophenia (of which one example is pareidolia) as my topic for my Psychology 101 term paper. This is the first term paper I’m not dreading doing!

    The most interesting study I’ve found so far shows that an infant will look at a pattern like:

    . .

    for longer than they’ll look at a pattern like:

    . .

    (edit: the blog formatting eliminates spaces it deems unnecessary. For the above dots, arrange them into the verticies of an equilateral triangle)

    (Second edit: has the picture with a reference.)

  8. Gary

    When I was a little kid there was a crack in the ceiling of my parents home that looked vaguely like the profile of a large man. It reminded me of the silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock that he would walk into at the beginning of his show. I tried to avoid looking at that crack because as a little kid Alfred Hitchcock sacred me and I would imagine his spooky theme music if I looked up at that crack. Okay so I was a weird little kid.

  9. Casey K

    You’ve probably already seen this, but it’s a hilarious twist on Pareidolia.

  10. Nemo

    The August 2009 National Geographic cover has a pareidolia on the shore below the w in Yellowstone.

  11. alfaniner

    I’m a little surprised that the acronym “HAND!” hasn’t caught on yet. No, I’m not talking about the “Talk to the…” phrase.

  12. angela

    My bedroom as a kid had that hideous fake wood paneling and I saw faces and characters in it- it was a whole kingdom of duck people, including a princess with a crown and a trumpeter. I had elaborate stories about all the duck people hiding in the simulated wood knots on the fake wood walls. Okay, so I was an only child and very bored, but I can still see them when I go home on visits! (The fact that it’s STILL up is another story!)

  13. There’s a wall in my bathroom, if I look at it in just the right spot, I swear I can make out a face that looks like me. My wife says that it’s a “mirror”, but the likeness is uncanny.

  14. I saw the Blog with my kids and they had a big fun watching faces.

    Have a nice day!

  15. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, paging Dr. MAndlebrot, your cloud is ready,,,

    Fractals, make my day,,,

    GAry 7

  16. mike burkhart

    Well people still think the moon dark areas form a face or a rabat and a crater on mars looks like a smileyface because of the bolders in it (and of course the face in cydona ) . In fact the stars in the skys seem to form paterns that they were grouped into constleations by ancient people and myths were created about them . When I was a kid I used to think clouds looked like spaceships


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