Pareidolia; an evolutionary process of the brain to distinguish the difference between “life” and “death”

Maria Anna van Driel
5 min readApr 16, 2021


By Maria Anna van Driel,

As a child, I thought that the dolls, teddy bears, and stuffed animals that I played with were living creatures. This was a question I came across while participating in a recent research which examines relationships between imaginary childhood friends and ghost-related experiences. A research conducted by Dr. Neil Dagnall and Dr. Kenneth Drinkwater (researchers in the Department of Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan, MMU).

A few days prior I had read the article, “Understanding the Child Eyewitness II: Child eyewitnesses often see things very differently than adults do — but why?” by Matthew J. Sharps PHD., Professor of Experimental Psychology, California State University, Fresno, specializing in forensic cognitive science.

Reading the above question asked in the survey made me think about why it is that we think of a teddy bear or Barbie doll being ‘alive’ and, can we consider a question as such covering more the area of (clinical) Psychology instated of Parapsychology? Because, so the article of Prof. Sharps explains, each young child is viewing the world from its own ‘Ego’.

Even though both research fields address this behavior we see mostly with young children, I let my thoughts run over why it is that they do not make a clear distinction in what is ‘alive’ and what is ‘dead’.

Digging into both the psychology of Jung and Freud, I came to a personal conclusion that it is due to the fact a young child’s ‘Id’ is still in an early stage of development or, perhaps has not even reached that stage yet. The brain of a child, say the age of 3, has yet not fully understood the difference between artificial and biological objects.

Also, it seems that the ‘Super Ego’ of a young child has yet not found an attachment/ connection to the Ego and Id meaning, a young child has yet not the ability to view itself from the position of others with awareness. This shows a behavior, viewed from a psychological point of view, of a young child experiencing everything that has the characteristic features of both its own and similar species, as a living thing possessing a soul.

So, from the perspective of a young child (Ego), everything is alive as soon as it has a ‘face’. This is why young children are crying dramatically and are inconsolable when you place their teddy bear, what has also arms, legs, ears and a little tail, in the washing machine…you are not washing it, you are drowning it!

The though crossed my mind if we can pour this, seemingly, primordial behavior in viewing the world from a, to a young child logical, blurry position, is the brain learning to recognize the thin line between life and death through a clear face-recognizing, in the jar of Pareidolia. Perhaps we can!

Even though the most common explanation of experiencing an effect in Pareidolia is that this form of the brain perceiving and processing information, is meant for recognizing ‘prey’ or ‘predator’ — what is safe and what is danger — there might be another reason why many of us experiencing these moments Pareidolia. Even long after we have passed the age of 5.

Let’s imagine a small triangle shaped pillow of any color. It has no recognizable features that it is of the human or animal race. It has no face and no limbs meaning, it is just a pillow. And when seeing this piece of stuffed cloth spinning uncontrollable in a washing machine…no harm is done. Now, what would happen when we draw a face on it? Indeed! Many people will feel a particular affection towards it and might even give it a name — this pillow instantly comes alive.

Think about the movie “Cast Away”. It was only in the moment that Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) recognized a face in his own bloody hand print on the volley-ball, that Wilson came alive. Before that, Wilson was just a volley-ball. Later in the movie we can also see how Chuck Noland is showing a strong affection towards the volleyball Wilson. He even tried to save Wilson from drowning when he went overboard and drifted away into the open sea. Chuck was devastated seeing his friend ‘dying’.

So, if we review the question, As a child, I thought that the dolls, teddy bears, and stuffed animals that I played with were living creatures from the thought that ‘face-recognition’, or Pareidolia, it is most likely the brain learning how to make a clear distinguish between something being alive or dead. I think that we should not ignore this ability of the brain. This paranormal phenomena aka Pareidolia, is an important evolutionary process in one’s life as it is teaching us how to treat both ourselves and others in our adult life.

It seems that our species is in a deep need for any form of Pareidolia what, in this line of thought, is teaching us what affection is. Also, if our brain would not possess this primordial ‘super ability’, life would look pretty robotic and we might not even be able to bury our deceased loved ones due to the lack of the emotion of affection.



Maria Anna van Driel

In 2020 I realized I was trapped in a toxic relationship since '00. In Aug. '22 I found the strength to break away, flip my life to become a psychotherapist.


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