Do You See What I See? Pareidolia

We love our pareidolia moments. The human brain is continuously at work interpreting the world around us, judging incoming information and stimuli on a range of choices and a spectrum of notions, ranging from food or not-food? to friend or foe? to Do I know you? Look at those clouds. Do you see what I see?

Artists have taken advantage of this for centuries. Were I to draw a circle, put two dots toward the top side, a short vertical line under these, and a horizontal half-circle under that, most people would say that I had sketched a smiley human face, even though hardly any human being that any of us knows looks like that. Some neuroscientists say that our brains are hard-wired to look for faces and to quickly identify friend or foe, even with only a part of a face visible. Those ancient humans who survived because of this skill survived to pass that skill on, genetically. Those with superior facial recognition skills today have their ancient ancestors to thank.

For most of us, we notice our facial recognition skills when they startlingly vanish, such as when we do not recognize a close friend when we run into them “out of context”: “I’ve never seen L. in the grocery store before, so how was I to know it was her?” At other times, we might see a “face” appear someplace random, on a burnt piece of toast, say. American wall outlets are a smiley face, or at least two eyes above a pursed mouth. Those are two examples of pareidolia, of over-interpreting stimuli. It wasn’t an over-interpretation for our ancestors, but it is when we see a face, especially one we can give a name to like a famous leader or spiritual figure, on a piece of burnt bread.

The artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo made pareidolia his theme. The 16th Century Milanese master frequently produced portraits of character types rather than individuals; for instance, a librarian composed entirely of books or a gardener made of vegetables in a bowl. That latter painting depends on the viewer to decide to see the bowl filled with veggies or a human “face.” When is a face a face and when is it a bowl of root vegetables?

the cook

Vegetables In A Bowl, Or, The Gardener by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/7–1593)

In the late 1990s, the U.S. Mint started producing quarters that honored each of our fifty states and Puerto Rico. Each year, several quarters were released with reverse-side designs made unique for whichever state. New York’s has the Statue of Liberty, for example. In 2000, one quarter honored New Hampshire and its most visible symbol, the “Old Man of the Mountain,” which was one of the country’s most famous examples of pareidolia.

Those who grew up in the ’70s might remember that 2000 was always preceded by this phrase: “In the year.” It still feels a little odd to type 2000 as a year and not a number. I do not know when, during what year, it was decided that we were close enough to 2000 to stop saying “In the year” before it. I think we used “Y2K” as an awkward transition: from “in the year 2000” to “I’m worried about Y2K” to “I can’t believe the 1990s were over fifteen years ago.”

It is not a year I revisit very often. I moved half-way across the country to a new job that year but it did not result in a new life, and I learned the valuable lesson that wherever I moved to, I was always included in the move. My life is mind-bogglingly different now. Back to the New Hampshire quarter in my hand.


The Old Man of the Mountain was an accident of glacial history and was probably noticed and remarked on quite frequently by the Pennacook peoples who lived in the area before European settlement. In 1805, a group of surveyors were working in the area and some of them noticed a “profile” when they looked at one cliff face when they were north of it. From the south, no. Indeed, one could make out with almost no effort, in the right light, from the proper angle, a brow, an indented point for an eye, a nose, a fissure for a mouth, and a prominent chin. Within years, it was the one thing most Americans knew about the “Granite State.”

This is because the one thing most people will know about the forty-nine states that they do not reside in is what those states sell as their image. New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die,” thus on the quarter it looks like the stone face is declaiming that feisty slogan.

Almost from the time of its “discovery,” it was that little state’s emblem and image: they are tough people, cut from the granite that makes up their land. Daniel Webster, one of America’s most famous leaders and a New Hamshire-ite, said of it, “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades: shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe, jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”

An interstate highway, I-93, was altered at a point below the mountain to give drivers the correct angle to see the “face.”

Even stone is impermanent, however, and the face-like ledge’s days were numbered. It gave New Hampshire a good two centuries as an image, but by the 1920s, New Hampshire was spending money anchoring the random collection of rocks in place with chains, cement, even steel rods. The Northeast receives a lot of snow and rain, and rocks that are merely leaning on one another will separate with the occasional flow of water in between them and the repeated flux of contraction in cold and expansion in heat.

When asked to submit a design for its special quarter, New Hampshire had but one answer, seen above: the Old Man of the Mountain. Three years after the U.S. released that coin, Cannon Mountain released the Old Man; on May 3, 2003, the rocks that made up the “face” broke off and fell from their spot 1200 feet up the mountain.

Each and every year 2000 New Hampshire quarter depicts something that no longer exists, but without our human habit of pareidolia, it really never did.

* * * *
A group called the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund was created and started accepting donations to do … something. Build a replica? Each suggestion wound up going nowhere, so by 2013, the group stopped accepting donations. It did build a plaza honoring those who had maintained the “Old Man” through the years and the Old Man itself. It looks beautiful and permanent, and it will open this year, according to the website.


A public domain photo showing before 2003 and now.

* * * *
This first appeared in February 2015.

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  1. Damien Riley · June 30, 2016

    Nice post. Interesting. I was waiting for the “Jesus on a pancake” part to start lol. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. loisajay · June 30, 2016

    My ob/gyn used to apologize if he ran into his patients in a grocery store by saying he didn’t recognize us with our clothes on. Seriously, you can laugh, Mark. And apologies for TMI.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. wscottling · July 1, 2016

    When I first befriend people, I will warn them that if I run into them again I may not recognize them because I’m bad with faces and names and they shouldn’t get upset about this because it’s not a reflection of them, but my brain. True story. I was out with a friend once and this guy sat down at our table and we chatted for a good, I dunno half hour. He obviously knew me and my friend, and she knew him too and called him by name, but I had no idea who he was. After he left, I turned to her and asked, “Who was that?” She laughed so hard and said, ‘That was Clay.” Duh, I heard her say his name. She laughed again and said, “Clay? you don’t remember Clay? OMG! You, like, dated him for three months a year ago. You’re the worst.”

    hahahaha! I seriously didn’t recognize him at all. I remembered him, but didn’t recognize him. I think if I were in a situation where I had to recognize friend from enemy, I might fail that test…

    Liked by 1 person

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