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See Inside Illusions: 187 Ways to Trick Your Brain

A Faithful Resemblance

When seeing is believing


There are things in that [wall]paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. —Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1892

The protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” suffers from the most notable case of pareidolia in fiction. Pareidolia, the misperception of an accidental or vague stimulus as distinct and meaningful, explains many supposedly paranormal and mystical phenomena, including UFO and Bigfoot sightings and other visions. In Gilman's story, the heroine, secluded in her hideously wallpapered bedroom and having nothing with which to occupy herself, is driven to insanity—full-blown paranoid schizophrenia—by the woman behind the yellow pattern. As she descends into madness, she comes to believe that she is imprisoned by the wallpaper.

Mental disease can aggravate pareidolia, as can fatigue and sleepiness. After a recent surgery, one of us (Martinez-Conde) noticed faces everywhere, in places as unlikely as the ultrasound images of her left arm during an examination of potential postsurgical blood clots. She realized at once that the ubiquitous faces were the product of lack of sleep and the high titer of pain medication in her bloodstream, so she was more fascinated than concerned. Her doctor agreed but made a note in her file for a different drug regime in the future. Just in case. Luckily, the hospital room's walls were bare, and there was no yellow wallpaper in sight. Our brain is wired to find meaning. Our aptitude to identify structure and order around us, combined with our superior talent for face detection, can lead to spectacular cases of pareidolia, with significant effects in society and in culture.

Further Reading

Unmasking the Face on Mars. NASA Science; May 24, 2001: http://science1.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast24may_1

Was There Satan's Face in the World Trade Center Fire? A Geometric Analysis. V. Kreinovich and D. Iourinski in Geombinatorics, Vol. 12, No. 2, pages 69–75; 2003.

Neuropareidolia: Diagnostic Clues Apropos of Visual Illusions. P. Maranhão-Filho and M. B. Vincent in Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria, Vol. 67, No. 4, pages 1117–1123; December 2009.

The Face of Testicular Pain: A Surprising Ultrasound Finding. G. Gregory Roberts and Naji J. Touma in Urology, Vol. 78, No. 3, page 565; September 2011.

Satan in the Smoke? A Photojournalist's 9/11 Story. Mark D. Phillips. South Brooklyn Internet, 2011.

Lateralization of Face Processing in the Human Brain. Ming Meng, Tharian Cherian, Gaurav Singal and Pawan Sinha in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online January 4, 2012.

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