Face or House?! The brain behind seeing faces in things

This post is also available in Dutch.

Cars with eyelashes, a power socket that looks funny, and toast that definitely looks like Jesus! “Seeing” faces in random patterns is very human, and the phenomenon is called pareidolia.

Some people can manage to see a face in this picture of a house. Interpreting an image as if there were a face is a human ability called pareidolia. Image taken from Flickr (CC0).


What is pareidolia?

Pareidolia is a Greek word that means seeing “an image instead of the other”. Pareidolia refers to the human ability of “seeing” faces where there are none. It’s not necessarily a disorder but a curious byproduct of our face-focused brain. It’s a cognitive ability that all humans have. As a species, we are specialists in faces because we communicate with each other all the time. But how fast is this process? And can the interpretation of face-like objects be comparable to actually seeing faces?

Looking at the face-obsessed brain

In an MEG study, researchers showed that real faces and objects perceived as faces are processed in the same way. Particularly, the same brain area, called the fusiform face area, was activated when processing both real faces and objects that were interpreted as faces. Importantly, there was no such activation when participants saw objects that were not perceived as faces. In other words, we see faces in things because we process them in the same way as faces.

The brain processes input in a gradual way. It starts with very simple inputs such as colors, lines, and shapes and reaches very complicated outputs, telling you that your aunt looks a bit frustrated about your present. Visual perception is a very hierarchical process in which the more complicated an interpretation is, the further the information has already travelled through your brain. Interestingly, the fusiform face area gets activated at the same time when seeing faces and face-like objects . This suggests that pareidolia is an early visual process and does not depend on image interpretation in later stages of processing (just like seeing normal faces). This is neurobiological evidence that humans are wired towards detecting faces in patterns of things that resemble human faces.

These results were confirmed in a recent fMRI study, which showed that fusiform face area plays an important role in seeing both faces and forms of illusory faces. Particularly, the more an object was perceived like a face, the more the fusiform face area was activated.

Do you see it? I do not!

People tend to interpret images differently: not everybody will see a face in the cloud or in a cappuccino foam. For example, it has been shown that females are inclined to see more faces in things in comparison to males. So next time your grandma tells you she saw a face in a toast, remember, there is nothing wrong with her, she is just a fully functioning human being.

Read more about pareidolia:

For pareidolia-inspired art check this:  https://www.boredpanda.com/pareidolia-illustrations-faces-in-places-keith-larsen/


Written by Lara.

Edited by Annelies.

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