Pareidolia: I Saw A Swon in Cupcake Badr

Baker GraceI love to bake, especially when I have company in the kitchen. One day Grace and I were preparing cupcakes when the phone rang.  I asked her to keep stirring for a minute while I answered.  She continued to swirl the mixture determinedly until she dropped the spoon, grabbed paper and pencil and scrawled this urgent note:

I saw a swon in cupcake badr 

February 2013 003Pareidolia  (parr-i-DOH-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a random visual or auditory stimulus being perceived as familiar or meaningful. If you’ve ever seen the face of the man in the moon, or glimpsed a surprised face peering from your electrical outlet, you’ve experienced pareidolia.  Played Beatles records backwards listening for secret messages? Also pareidolia.

Our brains are wired to make sense of multiple inputs and organize randomness into patterns to recall data easily.  To some degree, even computers using facial recognition technology are triggered to make the same error, as Rebecca Rosen chronicled in the Atlantic.

For a little creative relief, try staring at some tree bark, a cloud, or even your grilled cheese sandwich and see if you can look beyond the obvious.  I’d love to hear what you find!


About Cathy Ballou Mealey

Children's book author, repped by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency. Wife, mother, daughter, sister, alumna, autism advocate, book reviewer. Reach me via email at or Twitter @catballoumealey
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40 Responses to Pareidolia: I Saw A Swon in Cupcake Badr

  1. izatrapani1 says:

    So that’s what it’s called! It’s the story of my life! Right now I am seeing a lion’s head in the rocky outcrop outside my window 🙂 I love Grace’s note, cute misspellings and swan drawing!

  2. danacarey1 says:

    I do this a lot. Guess that means I spend too much time staring at stuff. Old wallpaper usually has some hidden message. The wallpaper in our bathroom is of flower bouquets– or a man’s face. Clouds and the knots in wood are fascinating too!
    Love Grace’s note!

    • I’d love to see that if you can snap a photo Dana. I’m going to collect some more images that we can all enjoy. 🙂
      BTW Grace now claims to have no memory of that batter or that note! So glad I saved it,

  3. Like Iza, I only know life with pareidolia! The unnerving part is when these visions m o v e!

  4. I do this a lot too – though maybe not as often as the illustrators here 🙂 I wish I had an example to send you – I’ll keep my eye out. Grace is SO cute! 🙂

  5. Hannah Holt says:

    Grace is a very smart girl to write such a clever note (and use a period and everything!). My favorite medium for pareidolia is cloud gazing. 🙂

  6. What a cute note from Grace. I have always seen pictures, faces in certain rugs/carpts, if gazing down. Also in other things. Never realized there was a name for it.

    • I’ll have to look closely at my rugs Pat! Oh dear, I will probably be so unhappy with all the dirt and sand that’s been tracked in this week. I’ll feel compelled to vacuum (and it’s too nice a day to spend it on housework!)

  7. Once I had a black-and-blue that looked like a penguin. OK – it’s not a swon in cupcake badr, but it was really fun.

  8. Wow, I had no idea there was a word for this. What a great note from your daughter! If you watch Glee, there was an episode about this — ‘Grilled Cheesus” I think it was called.

    • It is a fun vocabulary word for such a common phenomenon! I’m not a Gleek, but I’ll see if that episode is on Hulu. I probably save WAY too many of my girl’s scribbles and notes, but they can be good for a giggle.

  9. tinamcho says:

    I just learned a new word! Don’t you just love children’s phonetic spelling? Loved the note. Thanks for sharing.

  10. jama says:

    What a strange word, and an adorable note! Grace has convinced me I should be looking at my batters much more closely and carefully. 🙂

  11. Lauri Meyers says:

    I have little ones too, so I experience a lot of pareidolia looking at their art…”it’s a, it’s a, um, a dancing penguin?” “No mom! It’s the ice cream man!” “Oh, yes, I see it now!”

  12. Sue Wang says:

    Now that’s an SAT word. I saw a Medieval man’s face in my darkly-stained bathroom door when I was on the throne…

  13. Catherine Johnson says:

    That’s so cool and what a cute note. I used to always see wizards and witches faces in the swirly patterned bathroom tiles.

  14. I get this all the time. Do you think I can use pareidolia to make a workers’ comp claim? It kinda sounds like something serious.

  15. Funny! 😀 Pareidolia is my new word for the day!

  16. Sally says:

    Didn’t know there was a word for this! I remember some wood paneling when I was a kid that I always thought looked like the ocean!

  17. Oh my gosh. I love this so much. Everything about it. A swan in the cupcake batter. This is what poems are made of. She wrote a poem!

  18. Kanelstrand says:

    I spent my teen years drawing complex doodles, reminding seaweed, flowers, scorpions, etc but I was never really able to decipher quite well what lay behind them. Enter my uncle (a painter) who sees everything! I had such great moments with him telling what he’s seen. And a swan in a cupcake is precious!

  19. Pingback: The Merry, Merry Month of May | bildebok from Cathy Ballou Mealey

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