So I was reading a rather badly crafted novel last night–one that was entirely forgettable other than this one word: pareidolia. I tried to get my kindle to find the meaning, and it was unable to answer that question too. But Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, came to the rescue:
Pareidolia (/pærɨˈdoʊliə/ parr-i-doh-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.
The word comes from the Greek words para (παρά, “beside, alongside, instead”) in this context meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of; and the noun eidōlon (εἴδωλον “image, form, shape”) the diminutive of eidos. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, seeing patterns in random data.
Huh. Who knew? Apparently people have been suffering from pareidolia for thousands of years: seeing patterns in the stars and calling them constellations, faces and images in clouds, and seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in the patterns on their french toast. They also hear the Beatles implying “Paul is dead” when you play their songs backwards. The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state.
You aren’t crazy–you are extremely creative and able to visualize it pretty clearly. Even Leonardo Da Vinci understood the phenomenon–apparently he wrote of pareidolia as a device for painters, writing “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”
Well, it’s a word I most likely won’t use, but there it is — pareidolia — a new word in my vocabulary.