par·​ei·​do·​lia ˌper-ˌī-ˈdō-lē-ə How to pronounce pareidolia (audio)
: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern
The scientific explanation for some people is pareidolia, or the human ability to see shapes or make pictures out of randomness. Think of the Rorschach inkblot test.Pamela Ferdinand
compare apophenia

Did you know?

If you’ve ever spotted an image of a dog or a shoe in the clouds, you’ve exhibited what is called pareidolia, the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random pattern. Pareidolia emerged in English in 1962, borrowed from the German word Pareidolie, itself a combination of the Greek prefix par-, the Greek noun eídōlon (“image, reflection”), and the German suffix -ie. But although the word may be relatively new to English speakers, the concept is not. During the Renaissance, for example, artists such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo—who painted collections of fruits, vegetables, and other objects to look like human portraits—used pareidolia as a technique in their work, while Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “… if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.” So the next time you see the man or even a toad in the moon, you can think of your kinship with Da Vinci.

Examples of pareidolia in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web But that’s not the weirdest stellar pareidolia in the sky. Phil Plait, Scientific American, 28 June 2024 This image reflects our ability to look at something and discern a meaningful image in an otherwise random pattern, a tendency known as pareidolia. Eric Berger, Ars Technica, 31 Oct. 2023 The human propensity to see familiar objects in ambiguous patterns is called pareidolia. Stephanie Pappas, Scientific American, 17 May 2023 Partly that's down to the design of the lights, which should set off your pareidolia, and partly down to what now passes for a relatively low hood height, with curved edges finding favor over sharp creases at the corners. Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica, 6 July 2022 To find out whether monkeys experience face pareidolia, the scientists studied five rhesus macaques in the lab. Elizabeth Preston, Discover Magazine, 25 Aug. 2017 Compared to healthy controls, patients with Alzheimer's disease did not experience any more pareidolia than controls. Neuroskeptic, Discover Magazine, 1 June 2012 The second experiment was similar, except both real faces and pareidolia images were randomly combined in the trials. Jennifer Ouellette, Wired, 14 July 2021 Because of its trademark kidney grille, BMW's cars always suffer from pareidolia. Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica, 7 Sep. 2017

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'pareidolia.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from German Pareidolie, from Greek par- para- entry 1 + eídōlon "image, reflection" + German -ie -ia entry 1 — more at idol

First Known Use

1962, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of pareidolia was in 1962


Dictionary Entries Near pareidolia

Cite this Entry

“Pareidolia.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 Jul. 2024.

Medical Definition


par·​ei·​do·​lia ˌper-ˌī-ˈdōl-ē-ə, -ˈdōl-yə How to pronounce pareidolia (audio)
: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern
The human brain is optimized to recognize faces, which could also explain why we are so good at picking out meaningful shapes in random patterns. This phenomenon, pareidolia, could be responsible for a host of otherwise unexplained sightings, such as the face of the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich.New Scientist
compare apophenia
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