Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Swain. Swain Wonders, “What is pareidolia?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Swain!

Have you ever seen a cloud that looked just like an animal? How about what seemed to be a human face on a cliff? Maybe you’ve noticed an odd pattern on a piece of toast. If so, you’ve experienced the topic of today’s Wonder of the Day. What are we talking about? Pareidolia!

What is pareidolia? It’s the tendency of human beings to see patterns on random objects. Often, it means seeing human faces on inanimate things. But it also includes noticing other shapes in strange places.

One very common example of pareidolia occurs with the Full Moon. Have you ever looked closely at the Moon? Did you see a face looking back at you? Many people claim they have. Of course, it’s actually a random arrangement of craters. For generations, though, people have enjoyed the sight of a friendly face in outer space.

The Moon isn’t the only example to be found in the night sky. Some think the constellations started with pareidolia. Seeing patterns in the stars, like the hunter Orion, led people to keep looking for other pictures in outer space.

A 1976 picture of the surface of Mars even seemed to include a face! Of course, it was actually a mesa. But the world is full of other examples. People see shapes and faces in wood grain, in lightning, and even in the folds of a tissue! Some people have even connected instances of pareidolia to religion. One famous example is the grilled cheese sandwich that some believe looks like the face of the Virgin Mary.

What causes pareidolia? Is it a disorder? No, of course not. Experts agree that it’s normal for the human brain to look for patterns. It helps us identify new objects. Some believe early humans evolved to see and recognize faces quickly. This skill aided survival. That’s why it continued into modern day.

Whatever the cause, pareidolia doesn’t seem to stop with humans. The technology we create also sees faces where there aren’t any. Have you ever used the Face Swap feature on a smartphone app? If so, you may know what we mean. Computers often find faces on random objects, like rocks and keys. Today, companies are still developing facial recognition software. Building computers that can correctly identify human faces is likely to become more important.

Have you ever experienced pareidolia? Most people have at one time or another. The next time you look at the Moon, clouds, or another inanimate object, let your mind wander. You never know what pattern it may notice!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2

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