Pareidolia and Apophenia


This article on the Washington Post about a “smiley face” image taken in space by the Hubble space telescope led me to other articles about the phenomenon of pareidolia, which is our tendency to find (or imagine) human faces in everything we see.  According to, it’s a specialized version of apophenia, which is seeing patterns in random data.


Two things in particular interested me, one specific and one more general thought.

The specific thing that interested me was that the word pareidolia derives from two Greek words, one of which is para, meaning “faulty, wrong, instead of.”  I don’t think I ever knew exactly what “para” meant, but my understanding was probably closer to “instead of” than “faulty” or “wrong.”  It was closer, in my mind, to “quasi” (seemingly/not quite) rather than just faulty/wrong.  But the interesting part was the second Greek origin word, “eidolon.”  I’ve encountered the word exactly once, and that was in a characteristically batshit poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Dream-Land” (written in 1844) that I always loved.  The first (and repeated) stanza is:

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—

I think I first read that when I was a teenager.  There was no Internet back then, so when I looked up “Eidolon” (along with Thule) in the dictionary, I came away empty.  Today, if I look the word up on Google, it returns 762,000 results.  Maybe that’s progress?  I don’t really know.  I kind of liked the fact that I had this odd black word tucked in my mind for the last two decades.  I liked that I knew this word that wasn’t even in the dictionary.  Because I didn’t know what it meant, I had to guess — and my guess was that it mean some dark formless fucked-up Poe-inspired nightmare monster.  And that became like a thing to me, almost a point of reference.  And I think you keep those points of reference in a special, less-disposable place.  I probably won’t ever forget the word.  Whereas today, because of Google, I can just substitute the word for its meaning (which is only “a form, shape or image”) in less than a second, and then of what use is the word to me anymore?  Even if it’s a nice exotic word like “Eidolon,” which Poe presumably used because he needed a three-syllable word so the line would scan.

Not that I’m unhappy that I can look things up these days… for example, I looked up “pareidolia,” which started all of this, and that word probably wouldn’t have shown up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary we had in our house when I was growing up.  But there are these unexpected consequences of having such easy access to information.

The other thing of interest to me was apophenia itself.  I’d never heard the word.  It was originally coined in the 50s as a way to describe one symptom of the onset of schizophrenia, this delusional belief that there are patterns in everything.   Other than the obvious connections to Pynchon, Borges and Nabokov (just listened to a reading of “Signs and Symbols” on the New Yorker fiction podcast), this is one of the main themes of the story I just wrote.  Strange little coincidence to find the word in a newspaper article about space, and a great example of how the phenomenon works in the first place…  Once you start looking for signs, it’s hard to stop seeing them.  (And always hard to stop needing to see them.  Something that Pynchon explored better than anyone.)

Anyway, curious little rabbit hole to fall down.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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