Posted in Derren's Posts

Posted by Derren Brown March 31, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Pareidolia is the name given to our tendency to find significance in random stimuli – most commonly our tendency to see faces and people where there are none. Richard Wiseman’s huge collection of ghost pictures is largely a celebration of this fascinating phenomenon, and it also seemed to be a sensible – and often obvious – explanation behind a collection of ghost pictures I was shown recently as part of a documentary. Of course, for evolutionary reasons, we are hard-wired to veer towards the ‘false positive’ of seeing faces or people where there are none, as it is helpful to be over-sensitive to the presence of a possible predator. For this reason, we might mistake shadows for a burglar, but rarely a burglar for shadows. Also, it only takes a couple of dots and a line underneath for us to see a face and respond to it as one; hence the easy emotional grammar of smilies. Imagine trying to portray a church, or even a flower, or anything other than a face, with a couple of punctuation marks. 

So here’s my favourite example, which a few enthusiasts amongst you might know. We see a sort of huge Jesus-face between the man and woman in the photograph, and it’s very hard to snap out of it and see the actual subject: a Victorian toddler in a white bonnet being held by her father. The vegetation in the background appears to be hair in the foreground, and we’re seduced by our evolutionary preference for seeing a face. Have a look and work it out:

Aside from how fun it is to have our minds toyed with in this way, it’s a great lesson in how this kind of thing can fool us. In this picture, we know it isn’t a ghost. Partly this is because no-one’s saying it’s a ghost, but also we understand what the real subject is supposed to be, because when we eventually work it out, we have a solid alternative figure – and a far more plausible one – looking back at us in its place. Yet, had the illusion been created not by a little girl, but by the interplay of branches, shadows, light, water ripples and so on, (which would be just as likely to happen), there’d be no clear alternative emerging figure to ‘prove’ the illusion wrong. And thus, a ghost-believer might laugh off the picture above as an optical illusion (caused by the light and shadow of a little girl) while insisting another is real evidence for the supernatural (caused by light and shadow of a noisy background). 

Another point worth remembering is that out of the millions of photographs or pieces of footage taken where these illusions are present, there will naturally emerge a few which are as convincing as the one above. That has to happen – as some have to be better than others, and a few have to be the best. So just because some ghost pictures are very striking, and where the suggestion of random light and shadow forming a face might sound like the most blinkered cynicism, this does not mean you have to throw up your hands and admit a ghostly presence. It might be a ghost of course, in the same way it might be digital manipulation or a missed real-life intruder into the frame, but there’s nothing wrong with it just being one of those have-to-occur great instances of pareidolia too. Logically, there have to be some very convincing ones out there. Start with enough photographs being taken, and you’ll end up with a small number of absolute doozies. 

More importantly, though, these are huge fun. Do check out Richard Wiseman’s ever-changing online collection if you haven’t already. 


March 31, 2009 at 8:47 pm
Greg says:

Grrr! I’ve been staring at this for 2 minutes & I still only see the face! Took my glasses off, put them on agin, squinted, put differnet glasses on. Fantrasitic accidental illusion, really interesting post.

March 31, 2009 at 8:50 pm
Helen says:

I can see the original image but I have to concentrate hard to keep it from changing back to Jesus… I’ve seen this image before and this is the first time I’ve managed to see the girl!

March 31, 2009 at 8:50 pm
whooshdemon says:

Don’t see it, don’t see it, don’t see it… ARGH! There is it and it won’t go away!

March 31, 2009 at 8:56 pm
Nopke says:

Oh, I can see it .. it seriously does have giant masculin head, this toddler ….

I like pictures without ‘ghosts’, never seen one in my own circle of friends/family .. pictures with weird things on it (well, except for those friends/family ofcourse ..)

I checked the collection the other day (previous post) .. and can’t say it was that much fun .. it becomes kinda boring .. in a way … serious.

Some drawings or such that have been made on purpose to mislead you .. those are kinda nice … not that easy to make either ..

I often see a ghost in the mirror … .

March 31, 2009 at 9:00 pm
marie says:

I see the child, but what baffles me is why the mother looks like an Ork, or is that a trick of the mind too….?

March 31, 2009 at 9:17 pm
Nopke says:

Oh, there is at least one nice example on this blog of this phenomenon … the chair we all saw in yesterday’s pic … it was not really there ….ehehehe …

The reversed phenomenon is also interesting .. we can wipe people out of pictures … we plainly don’t see them .. nope, nothing instead of them either …

My shadows in my bedroom are not illusions though .. sometimes when I open my eyes .. there are mice in front of me … not an illusion ..

And the effect of stopping for a green light and driving on when it is red .. how the so called subconscious responds to colours …

I once saw a positive figure on my account overview and started buying stuff … it turned out .. later on .. that it wasn’t a positive figure … This is not a joke.

And then, the misinterpreting of people’s faces of intentions … another field, but sort of the same system.

The weird words/sentences you now and then read in newspapers and such .. which makes you reread it as you think ?????? … ofcourse it was your own brain making up a new story/words from boring headlines ..

But we all know ofcourse .. that the man on the moon is real, not an illusion.

March 31, 2009 at 9:34 pm
petrova says:

Derren you obviously havent seen the pics I took of my pal that ended up on the kinky site “sexy ghost rape photos”

March 31, 2009 at 9:35 pm
no_patients says:

I think It must hae the opposite effect on me, I had to have a friend point out the face, all I could see was the baby girl and her parents. Of course now my eyes flit from between the two.

March 31, 2009 at 9:45 pm
Berber Anna says:

@–)— That’s obviously a flower. Now the church may be harder… let’s try: _i^i–i_ …no, that looks more like a castle, if anything. Anyone? It must be possible!

Other than that, yes, pareidolia is rather fascinating. We’d be unable to find all the pretty shapes in the clouds without it. I like our brains’ quirkiness.

March 31, 2009 at 10:04 pm
JH says:

The ghost in that pic IS Jesus (or Cat Stevens) and he is sucking that mans nipple as he is in need of sustenance.

March 31, 2009 at 10:25 pm
ReliegiousMarie says:

Yeah i can see it it is really clear….and i didnt know there was a name for doing (actively seeing faces) this….i happen to like drawing faces and figures and scenes in universe-skies they inspire me so to speak as so i lay a link with doing sculpting……the longer i stare at a rock….the more final shapes i see which can come out of it…, don´t tell me it´s a brain disorder right….:-)

Btw…this is my chicken


(still no eggs though)

March 31, 2009 at 11:37 pm
Ferrari Filly says:

I really had to fight with my brain to see the baby but every time I’ve looked at the picture since, the baby is all I see. I’ve lost my Jesus!

No, hang on a minute, I think I just saw him.

March 31, 2009 at 11:54 pm
essen says:

How interesting – I have mild prosopagnosia (I can have diffficulty recognising faces – I’m good on voices, though. I find visualisation hard) and it look me ages to see the Jesus-face. And I never see faces in clouds or trees unless someone points it out to me (of course, once I ‘know’ they’re there, the vision switches between face/cloud).

I wonder if people who see ‘exaggerated’ faces (like Derren and his not-exactly-caricatures) find seeing faces in trees more easy?

I do find patterns everywhere else, though, so I’m normally human in that way!

April 1, 2009 at 12:36 am
Dominic says:

I encountered Pareidolia recently but I still believe in ghosts, fairies, and God. 🙂

April 1, 2009 at 6:22 am
Diana says:

Oh goodness, I see it, I see the toddler……It took me a good 5 mins though.

April 1, 2009 at 7:18 am

When my Nan died last may, Dad accidently sent me some photos of the flowers for the funeral arrangements – meaning to send them to my grandad – in one of the accidently sent photos i can see my nans face in the exact image of a photo took about a year before of her holding my daughter as a baby – looking down smiling – a sign maybe? I hope not a co-oincidence. Thanks for that Derren. 🙂

April 1, 2009 at 11:26 am

I love that weird little brain tickle that happens when an illusion is in flux. Wiseman’s revolving Thatcher pic is a great example of this. To know one is being fooled and how one is being fooled but being fooled all the same is a wonderful experience and needs a word.

April 1, 2009 at 5:17 pm
DazzW says:

There should be rules for these:

1. No low light or over-exposed photos.
2. “Orbs” don’t exist. They are dust.
3. No pictures of “ghosts” on glass or any other reflective surface. They are reflections.

Any more?

April 1, 2009 at 9:38 pm
Jejja says:

@–}- Flower

/_ /_
I n I Church? I # I …with iron gates
A Eiffel tower
Vn Rabbit?
O~ Balloon?
…….I’m bored…..

April 1, 2009 at 9:41 pm
Jejja says:

Church was deformed.
I n I

April 1, 2009 at 9:42 pm
Jejja says:

I give up.

April 2, 2009 at 11:54 am
katie says:

I’ve been staring at it for ages and I just can’t see the toddler. My own brain is screwing with me…help.

April 2, 2009 at 11:57 am
katie says:

wait I see it now! looks like my brain just needed a break..

April 2, 2009 at 5:31 pm
Vix says:

where the hell is the kid!!!! lol can anyone help? Where does it start?

April 3, 2009 at 10:43 am
Siobhan says:

Funnily enough I saw the child first and had to look for the Jesus face, but once I saw it it was difficult to find the child again…
I hate things like this, they make me wierdly uncomfortable for some reason…

April 4, 2009 at 4:41 pm
Erin says:

@;—,— There ya go, a flower created with nothing but punctuation marks =] But great article! I’m trying really hard to see the child, I can’t make sense of why he or she has no face though o,O

I guess this would explain the faces on Mars. Bit of a pity lol.

April 5, 2009 at 4:28 pm
Claire says:

The first thing I saw was the Jesus face, but I have to admit that it didn’t take me long to see the baby as well. It’s just such a strange photo.

But I love things like this, where you really have to SEE past the obvious….or at least try to!

April 5, 2009 at 4:49 pm
ScreamingGreenConure says:
That Jesus face is really quite awesome, but the Face on Mars will always have a special place in my heart.

July 28, 2011 at 9:21 am
jon says:

been doing artwork regarding pariedolia,find this photos very interesting thanks