What You See Is Not What You Get

The Bank of Canada recently conducted some market research on its new plastic money. Turns out, the focus groups saw all kinds of hidden images in the bills, from a skull and crossbones peering out portholes to, ahem, toys (“Sexy, religious images spotted on new money”).

Pareidolia is the term for our tendency to see patterns in inanimate objects (and on the occasional dog), but the layperson’s term for it is hilarious, especially the various images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary seen in everything from bird poop and Cheetos to x-rays and Wal-mart receipts. Our brains are wired to see patterns, especially faces, as Carl Sagan hypothesized: “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.”

Seeing faces and other familiar images is one thing, though. Many people take the next step and read some kind of meaning or importance into it, such as it being a sign from God or proof of the existence of extraterrestrials (which is ridiculous because everyone knows our alien overlords are way too smart to leave proof).

These days, Photoshop makes it all too easy to create pareidolia, for humor or to manufacture ghosts or signs from God. One of my relatives sent around an email that deliberately capitalized on pareidolia (and pareidolia’s trusty sidekick, Photoshop). Apparently, if you can see the image of Jesus in the picture below, Jesus will do something good for you.* (Because Jesus grants wishes to people who forward chain mail. Read your Bible.)

In case any of you are struggling to find the image, here’s a hint:

This one also circulated for a while, purportedly depicting God’s hands in the sky:

But here’s the original image:

Faked photographs have become so widespread and easy to create that a new field has sprung up to study them: digital forensics. Experts look at shadows and reflections to spot inconsistent light sources. The eyes can often give away much by the shape of the pupil, which looks circular to elliptical depending on the angle, as well as shadowing and, if more than one eye is present for comparison, specular highlights, the reflection of light in the eye (specifically where it’s placed, indicating light source direction).

You can also look for blurred edges or edges that are too sharp, inconsistent coloring (such as when a head is photoshopped on someone else’s body), differences in brightness, and duplicate areas (indicating that someone “cloned” part of the image). Sometimes, you can spot a fake because the content is unrealistic. In this image, the guy’s stance is off. If the cat were that huge, the man would need to be leaning backward more to support the weight.

When in doubt, if it looks fake, it probably is, although there are notable exceptions, of course, like this photo of me hanging out with Carl Sagan. Good times.

*Full disclosure: Something good really did happen to me at some point within the unspecified time frame after seeing Jesus in this image.

Previous post

Scaring Us Into Submission: Really The Best Plan?

Next post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 11.11

Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.


  1. November 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm —

    Ha, the God-in-the-sky one made me snort Mtn Dew out of my nose.

  2. December 8, 2011 at 6:51 pm —

    Ha ha! I know. Apparently, one of God’s many names is Cornholio.

Leave a reply