I just learned a new and very useful word: pareidolia. In the words of the Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus Christ. Or one sees the image of Mother Theresa or Ronald Reagan in a cinnamon bun or the face of a man in the moon.

Those are, I believe, the most common contexts in which the phenomenon crops up: religion and astronomy. I learned the word from astronomer Philip Plait, who’s sick of this sort of thing, especially as put forward by Richard Hoagland:

He’s had enough of Hoagland’s assertions that NASA is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial life, that the infamous Face on Mars was built by sentient aliens and, of late, that otherworldly machine parts are embedded in the red planet’s dirt.

Read the article if you enjoy a good debunking; you will also enjoy Plait’s account of a vision of Lenin in his shower. (Via xvarenah.)


  1. I found it at WordSpy. Fun site.
    An upcoming entry on bo logh discusses the survival benefit of the phenomenon. I expect the monkeys whose brains assemble the image of a whatever attacks and eats monkeys from a shadow that could be half a paw, a leaf that could be part of a nose and a shiny spot that could be an eye, to have more offspring than the monkeys that trundle past the same tree, unsuspecting.
    A few false positives do not negate the value of being able to see things that are almost hidden.

  2. A quick comment related only to the topic of encountering new words: I discovered the lovely word ‘cabotinage’ while watching Spellbound this week. What a great word!

  3. You mean it’s an English word? I thought it was pure French. The OED has cabotage, but that’s entirely different.

  4. What does cabotinage mean?

  5. Being like a hammy, self-important actor (cabotin).

  6. Thanks

  7. That “cosmic Abe Vigoda” really blew my mind…
    Who knew?
    K. S.

  8. Strange, I’d read that Skeptics’ Dictionary entry on altered perceptions more than once, and every time I distinctly perceived the spelling as “pareidoia”. But it’s not.

  9. Also, I’m pretty sure that otherworldly machine parts are embedded in the Red Planet’s dirt in a few places. If by “otherworldly” we mean “other than Mars.” Not the ones that Hoagland thinks he sees, of course…

Speak Your Mind