Pattern recognition

The human brain and visual system allow us to interpret the world and create our perception of the remarkably complex environment around us. It continues to provide endless study into areas including neuroscience, cognitive processes and visual perception.

Pareidolia is the term used to categorise those instances when something seen or heard is perceived as a known or significant and therefore recognisable. Patterns or shapes, especially the human face, can be created within purely random shadows or from cloud formations, stains or shapes in nature – almost anywhere that a combination of elements can trigger an incidental ‘false’ recognition of form. Our ventral fusiform cortex responds to combinations matching facial structure and interprets this shape stimulus as significant and activates an almost immediate recognition response.

Instances of seeing recognizable faces and figures include the many examples of claimed religious imagery, visible as recognisable portraits of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and others from a wide range of beliefs and religions. Faces or figures are formed on cloth, amongst smoke, in damp stains and through many, many other bizarre circumstances.

The most popular occurrence for witnessing human or animal forms involves finding shapes in the clouds. This has long been an easy source for the phenomenon and most of us would have found something resembling a known shape at some point. A quick web search will locate many photographic examples and numerous websites dedicated to searching the sky for these recognisable forms.

Personally, I see a lot of these materialisations and have used many of them as part of the concept stage for generating illustrations. These occurrences are very well suited to fantasy art and therefore help to generate ideas of a fantastic nature – something useful to me and the type of work I enjoy producing. Below are a few examples of recent creature sketches, produced from photographs taken whilst looking for reference material:


Capturing a random collection of shapes and shadows and finding a recognisable form amongst them is an excellent technique to aid seeing the detail in the world around you. As a designer and illustrator this proves to be a great source of training for the mind and an enjoyable activity of discovery.

Following on from here we could continue with an in-depth discussion regarding visual rules for patterns and composition: the rule of odds, golden spiral and the rule of thirds. All relate to perceived visual harmony, balance and beneficial structure. Our brain operates with various specialised areas determining particular input signals and when exposed to certain stimulus quickly links to known and desirable patterns and forms. Understanding how we react to many of these rules offers insight into why we see and feel what we do and poses even further questions regarding our place in the world.

So, keep your eyes open and the brain fully alert – pattern recognition is positively endless!

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