A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good- will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. --David Hume*

Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus. Or one sees the image of Mother Teresa or Ronald Reagan in a cinnamon bun or a man in the moon.

Under ordinary circumstances, pareidolia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based upon sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings, as well as the hearing of sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. It explains numerous  religious apparitions and visions. And it explains why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.

Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia as a means to understanding a patient, e.g., the Rorschach ink blot test.

Astronomer Carl Sagan claimed that the human tendency to see faces in tortillas, clouds, cinnamon buns, and the like is an evolutionary trait. He writes:  

As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin (Sagan 1995: 45).

Sagan is right about the tendency to recognize faces, but I don't see any reason to think there is an evolutionary advantage in seeing replicas of paintings, ghosts, demons, and the like, in inanimate objects. There is, of course, an evolutionary advantage in seeing images of dinner or predators against a varied environmental background. There would be no advantage for, say, a hawk to be dive-bombing shadows on rocks, however. It seems likely that the modern mind is making associations with shapes, lines, shadows, and the like that are connected to current desires, interests, hopes, ganesh in a potatoobsessions, and the like. Most people recognize illusions for what they are, but some become fixated on the reality of their perception and turn an illusion into a delusion. A little bit of critical thinking, however, should convince most reasonable people that a potato that looks like the Hindu god Ganesh, a cinnamon bun that looks like mother Teresa, or a burnt area on a tortilla that looks like Jesus are accidents and without significance. It is more likely that the Virgin Mary one sees in the reflection of a mirror or on the floor of an apartment complex or in the clouds has been generated from one's own imagination than that a person who has been dead for 2,000 years should manifest herself in such a mundane and useless fashion.

See also apopheniadivination, face on Mars, Our Lady of Watsonville, Rorschach, subliminal, and unconscious.

further reading

books and articles

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. Faces in the Clouds : A New Theory of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Schick, Jr., Theodore and Lewis Vaughn How to Think About Weird Things, (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995), ch. 3.

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. 2nd ed. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1990).


recent sightings

a sandpit in LancashireVirgin Mary in a Lancashire sandpit? (Note: this headline is a question, not a statement.) What, you might ask, would the Virgin Mary be doing in a sandpit? Not really a good question. What you should be asking is why would anyone think it is important that they can see the Virgin Mary in a sandpit? Why would nobody care if you saw Little Red Riding Hood in a sandpit? Or the Wicked Witch of the West?

Jesus in the bacon drippings










Jesus in a bucket of pizza sauce








Summer 2009.












April 2009. The "hand of god" (a picture taken by the Chandra spacecraft on a pulsar)








A sweat swastika appeared on my shirt after exercising. A few days later I found myself eating in a Buddhist restaurant looking straight up at a painting of a Buddha with the same shaped swastika hanging from his neck. Plus, I believe that's the Sacred Heart appearing in my hallway mirror (on the right side). What could it all possibly mean?











  • October 15, 2007. Is this Pope John Paul II waving from beyond the grave? Vatican TV director says yes - 15th October 2007.


  • October 13, 2007. Allen Stone found a stone in his backyard that he thinks is the spitting image of Jesus.






  • March 22, 2007. The Star of David in a pot of oatmeal.




  • February 2007. Jesus on the cross in a Texas tree.




  • July 21, 2006. Some god autographs an alligator for beer drinker. The divine one even prints so little children and idiots can recognize his moniker.

  • June 1, 2006. Rab Navas, a Pakistani fisherman, hooked a Safi, or rabbit fish, with the word "Allah" inscribed on its belly in Arabic. "I'm overjoyed at being the one to find this miracle in praise of Allah," he said. Thousands of pilgrims came to witness the "miracle" fish. The fish was put on display at the Shindagha fish market in Dubai.

  • May 2006. Jesus appears on a rock in Mexico. Gregorio Gomez, a 57-year-old Tzotzil Indian, said a voice told him in a dream that he would find an image of Jesus on a rock. And he did. Another miracle from the power of suggestion!


  • December 2005. Jesus appears in a nacho pan at the Stadium Club in Jacksonville.







  • June 3, 2005. Jesus appears in an ultrasound in a Toledo, Ohio hospital.

  • April 18, 2005. Hundreds of people gathered at the Fullerton Avenue underpass on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago to see what they say is the image of the Virgin Mary. Skeptics think it may be due to salt runoff.

  • July 22, 2004 -- Crowds are flocking to a hardware store in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, to see an image of Jesus that has appeared on a tinted window at the business.

  • March 25, 2004 -- Clyde Jackson of Natchitoches, Louisiana, says he sees the face of Jesus in his pecan tree. He says he first noticed the face while barbecuing in his backyard. Photo by Fred Ressler - used with permission

  • March 24, 2004 --Hundreds of Palestinians gather in the West Bank town of Hebron to see a lamb born with what appears to be the word "Allah" spelled out in Arabic on its coat. "This is clear evidence of God's [sic] existence," Yahya Atrash, the lamb's owner, said. "It was born with the words 'Allah' on one side and 'Mohammed' on the other."

  • December 2, 2003 -- A photo was published by Reuters (taken by Magnus Johansson) of Ala Edin Ayad kissing his newborn son Ala who was born with a large birthmark across his cheek that roughly forms in Arabic letters the first name of his uncle, Ala, a wanted Hamas militant killed by Israel troops eight month ago. The baby drew crowds by the thousands to the Aida refugee camp for a glimpse of the infant many are calling a miracle baby.

  • November 15, 2003 - Vladimir Lenin appears on Phil Plait's shower curtain.

  • November 6, 2002 - The Virgin Mary appears in frost in Fond du Lac, Saskatchewan.

  • July 20, 2002 -- Our Lady of Guadalupe appears in the trees in West Chicago to Sebastian Cuaya  and other Mexican-Americans.

  • July 18, 2002 -- The Virgin Mary appeared in a house window in Ferraz Vasconcelos, Brazil. The owner refuses to let the window be examined scientifically.

  • April 13, 2001 -- About 1,500 people flocked to a house in Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood after hearing reports that a vision of the Virgin Mary has appeared inside the home at night.

  • January 26, 2002 -- Ella Huffin of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, saw the image of Jesus on a tree in her backyard. "News about Jesus on the tree has been bringing friends and family, neighbors and total strangers to Ella's house on Richards St. in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood. She doesn't mind, so long as people are respectful. She's reasonably sure this is something meant to be shared."*

  • May 2000 -- The Bible seen written on the ocean floor.

  • February 25, 2000 -  Face of Jesus appears on church wall

Bigfoot on Mars?

or just a rock?




reader comments

news stories

Village Miracle’s Glow Dims Under an Ex-Spy’s Glare This is a story about either pareidolia, apophenia, lying for Allah, or all of the above.

Virgin Mary appears in a tree stump in county Limerick

A pixelated guest

Celestial speciality: Giving constellations a personal touch by Alan M. MacRobert

Mary on the underpass wall

Voice of Reason: The Viaduct Virgin By Joe Nickell

Jesus in the oyster shell

Half of 10-year-old Virgin Mary sandwich back on eBay

Woman blessed by the holy toast

Mars Gone Wild By Erik Davis - Wired August 2004

Virgin Mary visits Australia

Mold, Not Body Part, Found In Punch

Last updated 01-Jan-2015

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