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Pareidoliathon

Over at Geekosystem is a funny article titled: 50 Things That Look Like Faces. This is a great example of pareidolia – the tendency for the visual cortex (and the cortex in general) to impose a familiar pattern upon random noise. The most familiar image to the human brain is the human face. Infants can recognize faces and show a preference for the human face very early on. This makes evolutionary sense, as recognizing friend from foe instantly and unerringly has clear advantages. We also need to recognize our parent, our children, and generally our family members.

Pareidolia also reflects the fact that our brains are organized to be pattern recognition machines. Sensory data is taken in and then automatically our brains search for a match – and then bestow meaning on the lights, shadows, and colors it sees. This is an active, not a passive, process. Our brains then assign properties to what it thinks it sees. That is how we know that something we are seeing is an object, rather than a shadow, or representation. If it’s an object, then our brains further categorize (and this really happens on a neurological level) into animate objects with agency (the ability to act in the world for their own purposes) and inanimate objects without agency. Images further connect to the limbic system where our brains assign emotional content to what we are seeing.

We learn about all of these aspects of the neurology of processes images partly by patients that have damage in one or more parts of their brain. For example, the title character of the famous book by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, had a stroke in the part of his visual association cortex that assigns meaning to shapes. So while he could see the shape and outline of his wife’s head, his brain could not automatically make sense of it, so he had to infer from it’s shape what it might be. His wife’s head had a similar shape to his hat, so he assumed it was his hat.

Other patients have a more specific lesion that only deprives them of the ability to recognize faces (a syndrome called prosopagnosia). They can see everything, they just cannot assign a specific person to a specific face, so everyone is a stranger to them.

Even more bizarre are those who have lost the connection of emotional feeling to what they see. So, for example, they see their spouse and recognize their spouse, but the emotional feeling that should normally accompany recognition of their loved-one is absent. So they assume that their spouse has been replaced with an imposter, or perhaps a look-alike robot. In at least one case this lead to a husband murdering his wife’s “imposter.”

With all this in mind, take a look at these pictures of inanimate objects that evoke the sense of a human face. In many cases the objects feel as if they have emotion. Essentially, our brains are being tricked into matching the patterns with that of a human face and then assigning emotion to that face. My favorite is picture #1, shown here.

Take a look at the full list. I think the effect is perhaps enhanced by the suggestion to look for a face in the images – pattern recognition is partly about expectation as well.

I also added a few of my own images- just going around the house and looking for faces. The light socket was an obvious one, and I’m surprised it wasn’t on the list already. I especially like the “shocked” expression on the socket’s “face”.

It seems that all you need are two roughly circular shapes with something underneath to suggest a nose or mouth. That is enough for our brain’s face recognition to kick in.

2 comments to Pareidoliathon

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SkepticsGuide, kosmofilo. kosmofilo said: #TheRoguesGallery Pareidoliathon: Over at Geekosystem is a funny article titled: 50 Things That Look Like Faces…. http://bit.ly/hdDBj6 [...]

  • timmyson

    When I was younger, I used to point out things as interesting animated creatures, though my mother could see that it was just a garbage bag in a tree or something. She wondered if there was something wrong with my vision, so I learned to keep quiet about it. While I don’t wear glasses, her distance vision is much better than mine, still.

    Do you think there is significant variation in how one’s pareidolia is tuned, or was it more likely just that my vision was a little blurrier than my mother’s?

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