Moth Madness & Psychological Phenomena

Pareidolia. 

Pare-eh-doi-lee-uh.

Yeah, it took me a few tries to pronounce this one correctly too (and I’m still not even quite sure I say it right). There’s a quote that says,  “Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.”

Now, I would have sworn that quote was attributed to Mark Twain, but I’m probably just wanting to name drop the guy because he was full of cool things to say, and this is a very cool thing to say. So while I don’t want to put words into the late Twain’s mouth without his approval, we’ll just say the quote is anonymous. Less satisfying…but WAY more mysterious, kind of like the concept of pareidolia itself.

Pareidolia (shit, I still have to sound it out every time I type it) is the psychological phenomenon that explains how our brains perceive faces or meaningful patterns out of arbitrary shapes. As Carl Sagan writes in The Demon Haunted World, “Pareidolia is a widespread phenomenon and is in fact part of human culture. There’s a distinct, nearly universal human predisposition to see human faces everywhere–the “man in the moon” being a case in point.”

While reading about all of this, the first thing that came to my mind was moths.

Moth drawing Jenn Joslin

Many moths and butterflies have patterns on their wings called “eye spots” because, well, they resemble big ol’ eyes. This isn’t entirely by chance–Nature is a clever lady, and this is yet another one of her ingenious tactics to encourage the continued evolution and survival of populations.

The eye spots on moths really are supposed to resemble eyes, and it’s not just humans who see it. Many animals, particularly those predators like birds who would enjoy a nice moth for dinner, also can be surprised by seeing a sudden “face” and flee, leaving the moth to go about its moth business and make lots of moth offspring.

Moth drawing Jenn Joslin
Drawing from life–a Polyphemus moth found on a lonely hiking trail.

The moths I drew in this series are all very real species drawn with some artistic license. Each of these species evolved to be short-lived and slow-flying with strikingly good looks. Rather than use camouflage to evade predation, moths with elaborately bold patterns will flash their wings open to reveal these patterns that often appear as big, fearsome, penetrating eyes to the casual observer.

The moths have no idea that their looks alone are potentially scaring the living shit out of predators who cross their path in their sex-crazed frenzy. Predators think, “Sweet, a juicy meal…oh no! Big eyes! Bright colors! Danger!”

This, friends, is PAREIDOLIA.

Moth drawing Jenn Joslin
io moth.

Pretty cool, huh?

And this is just one of infinite examples. Sagan mentioned seeing the man in the moon, but then there are those who swear they saw Jesus’ likeness on a piece of toast ( or on the furry butt of a dog.. .).

Psychology, man.

Our brains are just naturally wired to discern meaningful patterns from the absolutely massive amount of information we consciously and subconsciously take in on a daily basis. We see shapes in wood grain patterns, images made of folds of fabric, wall outlets that seem to have emotive faces, and…full works of art made from nothing but pencil lines on a piece of paper, all coming together in such a way that tricks out brains into believing the drawing is a depiction of an object.

Moths particularly drew me in because while butterflies are cool and all, I didn’t find myself noticing very many interesting faces in their wings. I figured I’d only research moths and pay attention to which types of “faces” my brain spotted in their patterns. Eventually I realized that, wow, moths have no idea what they look like to observers. That’s pretty obvious, but I’ll add to it: how many of our features–and even our behaviors–do people see and react to without us being aware of them at all.

I am a big fan of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. Hell, I majored in conservation biology in college while making it a point to study how behavior evolves and how human behaviors are currently influencing the future of life on our planet. 

Spanish Moon Moth

Drawing each of these moths was challenging but I love how they came together in the end. I especially enjoy hearing the different interpretations people have shared about the expressions they have picked out from the wing patterns. The Spanish Moon Moth, shown in progress below, was described as “intense” (I have to agree), while I still can’t stop seeing WALL-E’s doleful eyes in another.

Moth drawing Jenn Joslin

It’s been fun spending time getting to know these moths. Hopefully next time you see animals in the clouds or the image of a holy saint on your dog’s butt, you’ll remember Pareidolia (say it with me!) and thank your brain for evolving with your best interest in mind.


ALSO: I have formatted this collage in such a way that it will perfectly fit the dimensions of your smart phone. Just click the image below to be directed to the full size file and right click/tap to save.  Now whenever your friends see your phone they will automatically know what a nerd you are and you can spend minutes–MINUTES–telling them all the fun facts you know about pareidolia and how incredible our human brains are.

Your friends will love it, trust me. You’re welcome.

Moth Collage Phone Wallpaper
Save Me!

Scroll to Top