Pareidolia: Capitalize on the Brain’s Error

As a kid, I would tune into KTLA every Sunday to watch Tom Hatten play Popeye cartoons. One of the segments that drew me in was his squiggle contest. Viewers would send in a scribble on a sheet a paper and Hatten would transform it into a cartoon character (often a member of the Popeye gang).

Tom Hatten Squiggle

Seeing shapes or faces in random objects is a hard-wired error in the human brain called Pareidolia. Our brains are very skilled at detecting patterns from random bits of information. The term apophenia was coined by German neurologist, Klaus Conrad. 

What is Pareidolia?

Aphopenia is a catch all term for the brain seeking significance out of meaningless data or random experiences (examples include gambler’s fallacy and confirmation bias). Pareidolia is a type of aphopenia that deals specifically with visual information. People often see human faces in their environment. For example, seeing a face in a slice of toast or creating animals out of random clouds.

Another type of Pareidolia is the clustering illusion where we attribute significance to groups of data or shapes. 

Using Pareidolia

Many artists used pareidolia to create stunning and often disturbing works of art. Salvador Dalí was famous for his surreal interpretations of images. Many of his paintings can be interpreted multiple ways, often with a face or figure hidden in the composition.

Lee Wagstaff uses AI generated faces to inspire each of his geometric compositions. These play on the idea of human pattern recognition. Go too close to too far away and all you see is a random assortment of geometric shapes. But view at the just the right distance and a face appears.

Artist Anna Chvindt sees cracks in old walls and creates whimsical creatures.

Pareidolia is a wonderful resource to all visual artists. When we “see” a shape or face where it doesn’t belong, we can exploit it. New and startling images can come from staring out the window or doodling on paper. 

Keep your imagination open to the strange and bizarre. Stare at clouds or cracks in the walls. Keep playing on the error built into our brains. 

Tim Kane

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