Have you ever looked at your morning toast and seen a face? Or a face in one of your cheese slices or even clouds. Face pareidolia is a common psychological phenomenon of perceiving illusionary faces in inanimate objects. These illusionary faces help people assign human characteristics to these objects, such as age, gender, and emotional expression.
Numerous studies have been carried out to demonstrate the visual features that are sufficient for face detection. Many behavioral experiments, carried out by researchers proved the hypothesis that people are strongly biased when they perceive illusionary faces. They tend to see these faces as males rather than assigning them feminine features.
Dr Jessica Taubert from UQ’s School of Psychology believes that over 3,800 people label cues as a female face while the majority mark it as a male. Seeing a facial structure in an everyday object depicts how our brain detects and recognizes social cues.
Why do you see faces in objects?
Seeing faces in objects is an illusion processed by parts of the brain dedicated to processing real faces. Face pareidolia is another name for fooling the brain as the brain associates human emotional expression as it does in real faces, rather than discarding the objects as an illusion. The exact mechanisms and human functioning are used to distinguish friends or foes.
Face recognition is like a template matching procedure for the brain as it automatically associates a curved line like a smile and two circles to represent the eyes which builds a picture of a face. Many stimulus attributes, such as orientation, facial expression and attractiveness, are biased towards recent experiences.
It is believed that people who are more religious or believe in the supernatural are more prone to pareidolia. This is because their minds are always on an alert for the danger that goes according to their beliefs; hence they are more likely to spot something that isn’t there.
Women are more likely to spot faces since they have a better ability to recognize emotions through deciphering facial expressions. The most iconic and famous story of face pareidolia is when Diane Duyser picked up a cheese toastie and was shocked to see Madonna’s face on her toast. A casino paid Duyser $28,000 to exhibit her toast while many people still argue that the features and serene expressions recall famous depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps our brain makes sense of these messes by making predictions about what we could potentially see in the future or based on our past experiences. It subtly projects those experiences onto what we see and creates a more precise image even if the lightning is obscure or foggy.
Research has shown high activity in the brain’s primary visual cortex when people start adding detailed aspects to a picture. The frontal and occipital regions, which is essential for cognitive functions and voluntary movement and actions, also fire into action, stimulating a higher level of thinking and processing.
Profiting from pareidolia
Psychologists widely use face recognition to interpret a person’s hidden emotions through Rorschach inkblot. This test involves dropping ink on a paper and folding the paper in half. The image created by the ink is then presented in front of the patient and projects their innermost thoughts that help psychologists understand their patients without having to pry into details of their life. Pareidolia is also used for religious purposes or UFO sightings.