Understanding Pareidolic Illusions

Pareidolia is a normal phenomenon (especially in children) that does not disappear when attention is focused, and the images are recognized as unreal by the individual.

Pareidolia is a type of illusion Opens in new window that occurs when imagination is used to create images and is the misperception of vague or obscure stimuli being perceived as a person or an object.

Pareidolia occurs in a considerable proportion of normal people. It may also be provoked by psychomimetic drugs. Typically, images are seen from shapes in pareidolic illusion.

For example, the author used to see the head of a spaniel in a chip on the first paving stone of the path leading to the house where he lived as a child; the image was not just a dog but definitely a spaniel.

Pareidolic illusions are created out of sensory percepts by an admixture with imagination. The percept takes on a full and detailed appearance:

‘a Victorian lady with a crinoline and frilled bloomers’.

The person experiencing it, like someone seeing a photograph, knows that it is not truly there as an object but that it is pictorial. However, s/he cannot dismiss what s/he sees.

Completion and affect illusions occur during inattention; they are banished by attention, which will, if anything, increase the intensity of pareidolic illusions as they become more intricate and detailed.

Pareidolic illusion occurs in children more than in adults. It should be distinguished from the following conditions:

  • Functional hallucination, which occurs when a certain percept is necessary for the production of a hallucination, but the hallucination is not a transformation of that perception. For example, the patient hears voices when the tap is turned on; he hears voices in the running water, but the voices and the noise of water are quite distinct and can be heard separately and synchronously like any other voice that is heard against a background noise. The perception of hearing running water is necessary to produce the hallucination, but the hallucination is not transformation of that perception.
  • Perceptual misinterpretation, that is, simply making a mistake as to the nature of perception without that perception being particularly influenced by emotion mixed with fantasy.
  • Fantastic interpretations or elaborate daydreaming can be very similar to pareidolic illusions and, as we have already discussed, there is a large admixture of fantasy in such illusions.
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    Adapted from:
  1. Sims' Symptoms in the Mind: An Introduction to Descriptive Psychopathology By Femi Oyebode
  2. Crash Course Psychiatry - E-Book By Katie FM Marwick, Steven Birrell