Oooh look: it’s a face! No it’s not, its pareidolia!
Pareidolia is the inbuilt tendency we have to see faces in clouds and all manner of inanimate objects in our day to day life. But don’t worry: this is not a sign of incipient madness, it is, rather, a sign of a very imaginative and creative mind!
Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, seeing faces in inanimate objects, or lunar pareidolia like the Man in the Moon or the Moon rabbit.
BTW, if you’ve ever struggled, does this help you see a ‘Man’ in the Moon?
Professor David Alais, author of a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (Alais et al., 2021) said:
“From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that the benefit of never missing a face far outweighs the errors where inanimate objects are seen as faces. There is a great benefit in detecting faces quickly, but the system plays ‘fast and loose’ by applying a crude template of two eyes over a nose and mouth. Lots of things can satisfy that template and thus trigger a face detection response.”
In other words, pareidolia is like a mental shortcut.
The brain often makes assumptions about what it’s seeing, to work as fast as it can, which from an evolutionary standpoint won out over working slowly and more perfectly. Making these mental shortcuts helped more early humans survive, and so became the norm.
Quick, crude, but useful
Face recognition is actually so important to human beings that we process faces in just a few hundreds of milliseconds. And pareidolia is the brain’s quick and crude way to “spot” a face, in case it’s important.
Professor Alais said:
“We know these objects are not truly faces, yet the perception of a face lingers.
So we end up with something strange: a parallel experience that it is both a compelling face and an object.
Two things at once.
The first impression of a face does not give way to the second perception of an object.”
The concept of pareidolia may also extend to include hidden messages in recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds, and hearing voices (mainly indistinct) or music in random noise, such as that produced by air conditioners or fans. This is aural pareidolia, but we’ll leave that for another blog. Suffice it to say, our brain tries to make sense of the world around us, even when there is no sense to be made. This is one reason, for example, that we need to be very careful with so-called “eyewitness evidence”. What may appear to be a solid recollection may, in fact, be nothing of the sort.
Pareidolia was at one time considered a symptom of psychosis, but it is now seen as a normal human tendency. Indeed, scientists have taught computers to use such visual clues to “see” faces and other images.
The Rorschach Inkblot Test
One of the most famous examples of pareidolia being used in psychological evaluation is the Rorschach Inkblot Test, where random inkblots are given to the person being assessed and they are then asked to say what they see. The Rorschach test is a psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning. (You can read more in Wikipedia.) And very often this will involve the person seeing animals or faces or familiar shapes.
The sadly departed and brilliant thinker and astronomer, Carl Sagan believed that pareidolia was an evolutionary remnant, and theorised one interesting explanation:
“As soon as the infant can see, it recognises faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face and to respond with a goony grin” (Carl Sagan 1995).
Good luck trying to buck the evolutionary trend. According to an article on Pareidolia in the journal “Conversation”:
“We have no conscious choice in the matter. The search for faces is automatic, using a coarse template roughly corresponding to the general configuration of a face (for example two eyes, side-by-side, above a nose, above a mouth).”
The coarseness of this mental template means that we will very rarely miss a face that is presented to us, even if visibility is poor, but this also opens the possibility that it may be activated by similar patterns other than faces.
This contention is supported by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies, which show significant brain activation not only when faces are presented, but also when non-face stimuli are mistaken for faces.
Is your piece of toast a collectible?
People seem to be willing to buy into the images that our brain is fooling us with. In 2004, Diane Duyser from Florida, USA sold a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich for US$28,000. Click on the link to find out even more about this grilled cheese sandwich. Frankly I have no idea how you’d preserve a 10 year old sandwich, but there it is.
This particular snack showed a pattern of browning that Ms. Duyser claimed resembled the Virgin Mary. Others agreed enough to create a news story that reached across the globe, piquing the interest of eBay bidders with deep pockets, or you might say, more money than sense.
In fact, religious icons have a habit of turning up in the most unlikely places. In recent years, the Virgin Mary has also been spotted in a pretzel that sold for US$10,600 and in a wooden stump near the cliffs in the Sydney suburb of Coogee (“Our Lady of the Fence Post”), while Mother Theresa has appeared in a cinnamon roll (the “Nun on a Bun”).
Have you got any examples to share?
So there you go … now you know lots about Pareidolia!
Have you got any good examples of this fascinating phenomenon that you can share with me? Put them in comments!