Faces in the Clouds

A quick fire post on my first steps in researching patterns and how we recognize them…

Gestalt Psychology is the holistic study of the brain, mind and perception. Gestalt theory covers a lot of different things, but it’s founded on the principle of prägnanz, which is “the tendency of a process to realize the most regular, ordered, stable, balanced state possible in a given situation” (Wilson & Keil, 2001 p347).

There are four perceptual properties identified in Gestalt theory: emergence, reification, multistability, and invariance.

Emergence the property that allows us to form more complex patterns from simpler ones, like interpreting a series of black and white marks as a dog drinking:


Reification is the process which allows us to fill in the gaps, seeing more that is really there:


Multistability is the process which makes uncertain images alternate between two (or more) possible interpretations; do these cubes go into the page or come out of it?


Finally, invariance is the process which allows us to recognize simple shapes, like a triangle or cube, irrespective of its orientation:


Gestalt theory is a fascinating area with a close connection to visual arts, 
Art, Design and Gestalt Theory
 (Behrens, 2004) investigates some of the theory and its relationship to art. And taking this as my starting point, I tried to find more specific examples of psychological phenomena that relate to pattern recognition, beginning with apophenia.

Apophenia is the perception of connections or meaningfulness of unrelated objects or events. It’s a negative side effect of our inbuilt mechanism to see patterns wherever we look. Being Amused by Apophenia (Poulsen, 2012) touches on the dangers of erroneous pattern recognition (like conspiracy theories); a subject which I find extremely intriguing. And Why we can ‘see’ the house that looks like Hitler (Bell, 2013) identifies some of the psychological studies that have investigated the phenomenon:

…the remarkable human talent for perceiving meaning where there is none. Known as apophenia or pareidolia, it is something we all experience to some degree. We see faces in the clouds and animals in rock formations. We mishear our name being called in crowds and think our mobile phones are vibrating when it turns out to be nothing but the normal sensations of our own movement. (Bell, 2013)

It seems that many of the misperceived patterns caused by apophenia relate specifically to religion, magic and our search for the meaning of life. Our desire to understand our place in the world and feel special, unique and immortal makes this a fertile ground for misperception.


A subset of apophenia is pareidolia, which relates specifically to visual and aural signals. It’s what makes us see shapes in the clouds and faces in objects. It’s also the principle used in the Rorschach test, which uses our faulty visual perceptions in an attempt to determine our mental state.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as an artistic tool, a way to find inspiration:

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. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms. (Rabaté, 1996 p24)

And it also seems to be the basis for a lot of psychological thriller and horror films, in which the protagonist’s fear (and that of the audience) is questioned, did we really see what we thought we did?


Something that I’ve always considered to be related to our ability and need to see patterns are phosphenes. Phosphenes are patterns of light and colour that appear in our vision in total darkness. Suzanne Carr gives a much more detailed descriptions of their causes and history and On the history of deformation phosphenes and the idea of internal light generated in the eye for the purpose of vision delves into even more detail.

Phosphenes themselves are a biological, not psychological, phenomenon. But they fascinate me, because of what people perceive these patterns of light and colour to be, how they interpret them into familiar shapes; an sort of inter-ocular Rorschach test.



Apophenia, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Available from: http://www.skepdic.com/apophenia.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Behrens, R. R., (2004) Art, Design and Gestalt Theory, Leonardo On-Line, Available from: http://www.leonardo.info/isast/articles/behrens.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Bell, V., (2013) Why we can ‘see’ the house that looks like Hitler, The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/17/why-we-see-hitler-house [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Carr, S., (1995) Phosphenes: The Evidence, Entoptic Phenomena, Available from: http://www.oubliette.org.uk/Three.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Gestalt Psychology, Encyclopedia Britannica, Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/232098/Gestalt-psychology [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Gestalt Psychology, MIT Encyclopedia, Available from: http://ai.ato.ms/MITECS/Entry/kubovy.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Lehar, S. (2004) Gestalt Isomorphism, Boston University, Available from: http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/webstuff/bubw3/bubw3.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Pareidolia, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Available from: http://www.skepdic.com/pareidol.html [Accessed on 4 November 2015

Plafke , J., (2011) 50 Things That Look Like Faces, GeekoSystem, Available from: http://www.geekosystem.com/things-that-look-like-faces-pareidolia/ [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Poulsen, B., (2012) Being Amused by Apophenia, Psychology Today, Available from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being-amused-apophenia [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Rabaté, J-M. (1996) The Ghosts of Modernity, Gainesville: University Press of Florida

What is a Phosphene?, wiseGEEK, Available from: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-phosphene.htm [Accessed on 4 November 2015]

Wilson, R. A. & Keil, F. C. (2001) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge: The MIT Press

Grüsser, O.J. & Hagner, M., (1990) On the history of deformation phosphenes and the idea of internal light generated in the eye for the purpose of vision, Doc Ophthalmol, 1990 Feb, 74(1-2), pp.57-85.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s