Most of us have occasionally seen what looks like a face in an inanimate object. This is known as pareidolia, wherein one perceives images of human faces, animals or shapes in objects and nature, such as vegetables, vehicles, domestic appliances, buildings, trees and clouds.
Perhaps the most famous example of this tendency is the "Face on Mars."
On July 25, 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter took photos of the Cydonia region of Mars and one of them sparked global excitement, as it appeared that there was a humanoid "face" on the surface. Viking chief scientist Gerry Soffen explained it as being a "trick of light and shadow," but that didn't stop UFO enthusiasts immediately proclaiming the mesa as proof of an ancient Martian civilization. That one image has been the inspiration for countless books, music, TV shows and films, most notably an episode of The X-Files and the motion picture Mission to Mars, the latter being a particular guilty pleasure of this writer!
However, higher resolution photographs in the intervening years have proven that the spooky looking face is just a natural formation and that the "illusory face-like appearance depends on the viewing angle and angle of illumination."
The phenomenon of pareidolia involves cognitive processes being "activated by the 'face-like' object, which alert the observer to both the emotional state and identity of the subject, even before the conscious mind begins to process or even receive the information."
There has been much debate about what drives pareidolia. The legendary cosmologist and novelist Carl Sagan believed that it was an evolutionary survival instinct because the ability to recognize a face as friend or enemy from a distance or in conditions of poor visibility was essential to self-preservation. This same survival tool, Sagan argued, could lead to humans perceiving random images as being faces.
Naturally, pareidolia has provided a goldmine of amusing photos on the internet.
Australian photographer Megan Kennedy believes that pareidolia offers creative opportunities to photographers. It "gives us a great opportunity to harness the phenomena to create psychologically engaging and even humorous bodies of work. Faces in objects can be extremely evocative for a viewer. It’s almost like holding up a mirror to our own interpretations of a space. Addressing a phenomenon that bridges the gap between the known and the ambiguous adds personality to an image."
The British multimedia artist Graham Fink even held an exhibition of his photos that delved into pareidolia. In Stone Souls, Fink "sees faces in decay, in nature, in the developed and the natural - finding shapes reminiscent of physical structures, he photographs them." He then reproduces the images on white marble from the quarries of Thassos in Greece.
Pareidolia can provide lots of fun, but for one lady in Florida, it also provided lots of money. Diana Duyser from Miami had a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that she said had the image of the Virgin Mary. She sold the sandwich on eBay for $28,000.
So, if you ever see Elvis in a burnt slice of toast, don't take a bite. It could be the most valuable piece of bread you ever have.