Why we see human faces everywhere

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You’ve stopped at a café on your way to work, and next thing you know, your latte foam is staring at you. You’ve had the same furniture for years, but today your cupboard looks sad. You’re lying in the park with your friends, and now Jesus is floating by in the clouds – are they seeing him too?!

Why do we see human faces everywhere? (Don’t worry, you’re not crazy.)

Until now, it has been unclear as to why the brain processes visual signals and represents them in our mind as human faces. However, scientists from the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney have tried evaluating this phenomenon.

The facial recognition response happens fast, only taking a few hundred milliseconds. From an evolutionary perspective, the authors suggest that the benefit of ‘never missing a face’ outweighs the error where inanimate objects are seen as faces. Despite knowing that the object you are seeing is not a human face, the perception of a face lingers. This is known as ‘face pareidolia’.

Pareidolia refers to the tendency to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus; making one see an objection, pattern or meaning when there is none. Pareidolia was originally considered a symptom of psychosis, but it is now viewed as a normal human tendency.

Pareidolia has been investigated by scientists and has been present in art and literature for a long period of time. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet demonstrates his supposed madness in his exchange with Polonius by telling him that he can see a camel in the sky. Artists such as Da Vinci, have also represented pareidolia in their paintings and drawings. Pareidolia is also commonly discussed in religion, where images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or the word Allah, have been spotted in a variety of contexts (for example, in the smoke from 9/11 or the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral).

The authors set out to investigate whether a detected pareidolia face would be discarded as a false detection or be analysed for a facial expression. The study participants were presented sequences of faces and asked to rate each face expression on a scale from angry to happy. The sequences involved a mix of both real and pareidolia faces.

The researchers have found that pareidolia faces are not discarded as false detections, but rather undergo an internal ‘facial expression analysis’, in the same way a real face would. This is likely because humans are deeply social beings. Additionally, they found that biases often seen when judging human faces were present in the analysis of the pareidolia faces.

So, the next time that you see an angry tree, don’t be surprised (and remember, it’s not personal).

Original study: David Alais, Yiben Xu, Susan G. Wardle, Jessica Taubert. A shared mechanism for facial expression in human faces and face pareidoliaProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2021; 288 (1954): 20210966 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.0966

Featured photo: “Why we see human faces in objects sometimes”, the Swaddle 2021.

Additional sources:

  • https://www.livescience.com/25448-pareidolia.html
  • https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/07/210706191620.htm
  • https://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-subjects/seeing-faces-in-objects-pareidolia-gig-chen/

Edited by Malavika

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