Scientists Say: Pareidolia

There’s a word for when you think you see Katy Perry in your toast

Smiley space

This photo of two galaxies has a light distortion. The curves lead us to see a smiley face where there really isn’t one.


Pareidolia (noun, “Pear-eye-DOH-lee-ah”)

When we imagine a pattern or meaning where none really exists. Some people see a face when they look at the moon. But the craters are randomly placed. The “man in the moon” that people see is the result of pareidolia.

In a sentence

Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope took a photo of two bright galaxies. The light around the galaxies distorted into a curve in just the right place. Instead of two galaxies and a light distortion, we saw a smiley face, which was the effect of pareidolia.

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Power Words

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galaxy  A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.

pareidolia  Perceiving a meaning or a pattern where it does not exist, as when people see a “man in the moon.” 

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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