Seeing Things: Pareidolia & Film

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What do you see scrolling through these images? The expected answer is many many faces, but no, not quite. What you are experiencing is something called pareidolia. It is described as the tendency or inclination to assign meaning to patterns, and in our case, faces. According to Professor David Alais, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney, the parts of our brain that identify and analyze real human faces use the same cognitive process when presented with an illusory face. Whether it’s something we’ve developed as a survival tactic or merely a means of our memories at work, facial pareidolia can be boiled down to an error in visual perception. It's a message that what you are viewing may or may not be a face, but to take notice nonetheless. We use this feature in our everyday lives, to register faces and determine the emotion or expression that is portrayed.

The Face on Mars

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NASA Image Library

Pareidolia can sometimes result in wild speculation and conspiracy theories. In 1976, NASA published an image of Mars captured by the Viking 1 spacecraft. Many viewers and news outlets immediately recognized a face protruding from the surface, and interpreted this as a sign of intelligent life. A sheer lack of detail, allowed viewers to piece together the shadowy-casted shape as a face, akin to figures created by ancient cultures on Earth. Twenty years later NASA had an opportunity to revisit the area with a newer spacecraft and released an higher definition image, revealing a lackluster plateaued mound.

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NASA Image Library

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NASA Image Library

Pareidolia in film

Face pareidolia has grown beyond mere random happenstance, now is leveraged across horror and thriller cinema. It’s roots stretch back to the early years of motion pictures.

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The word itself originates from Greek as “beyond the image”. Whenever you sit down in front of a spooky movie, they manipulate this part of the viewer’s mind with crafted lights and shapes in the scene. Filmmakers ask of you to focus in on difficult and out-of-focus parts of the screen to see what potentially could be lurking in the dark or just obscured out of view. The hope is your imagination will produce an image far more freighting than could be outright shown. 

This practice is not limited to works of fiction. Documentary and investigative shows with topics such as unsolved crime or ghost hunting often engage in pixel peeping– combing through images and video frames for possible clues, be it suspects or the supernatural; attempting to understand pixels as defined shapes. 

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So what is there to make of pareidolia? Have you ever taken notice of faces or patterns in everyday life? Next time you're out on a sunny day, look up and see what you can find.

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Stock Photography from Unsplash.com contributors levi-meir-clancy, paul-hanaoka, genet-schneider, marcus-ganahl, marten-newhall, and isaac-mehegan.

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Billy Lopez is a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio