Whenever you see a face in a cloud or the man in the moon you’re experiencing a phenomenon called “pareidoliac apophenia.” One example is the apparent face that emerged from the shadows of a mesa on Mars.
The term apophenia was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958. It refers to our tendency to find meaningful patterns or to draw connections in random sets of data.
In east Asian folklore, by the way, they don’t see a man in the moon; they see a rabbit.
Another example of apophenia is the apparent synchronicity between the 1939 film Wizard of Oz and the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon. If you watch this YouTube clip of the album playing as the movie soundtrack, meaningful connections seem to emerge.
Pareidolia is a specific kind of apophenia where faces or other patterns emerge from random shapes. The Rorschach test is a classic example. It also explains the remarkable discovery in 1978 of the face of Jesus in the burn marks of a tortilla, and the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich.
In September of 2007, a monkey god was observed in a car-damaged tree in Singapore. Pilgrims have flocked there ever since then to offer bananas to the monkey deity.
As artists, we can have some fun with this phenomenon. Whenever I sense a face emerging from the randomness of the world, I like to sketch it, accentuating the pareidolia just slightly. Maybe I’m going crazy, but last week I saw a face in the dormer windows of a building, and did this quick sketch to push it just a little.
Another time on a hike I stopped in my tracks when I saw a face in the rocky cliff. I did this sketch to accentuate the forms just enough to make it apparent, but without making it too obvious, hopefully. Rackham did the same thing with tree roots.
Though I didn’t know the name for it at the time, I used the idea in The World Beneath (1995), where Lee Crabb sees a skull (center) and Oriana sees a mother figure (right) in an apparently random grouping of stalagmites (left). Designing a form that could be interpreted in two different ways was a real brain-teaser.
Wikipedia entries on pareidolia and apophenia and Dark Side of the Rainbow
More on the Monkey Tree phenomenon, link.
Man in the Moon, link.
Rabbit in the Moon, link.
Alien face in duck x-ray, link.