Have you ever seen the shapes of animals in the clouds or the face of Jesus in your toast? If so, you are not alone. It's a fascinating phenomenon that is hard-wired into all of us and there is a neurological explanation for it.
The word pareidolia is derived from the Greek words para, meaning something faulty or instead of, and eidōlon, meaning image, form or shape.
Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things.
Apophenia is a more general term for pareidolia. Apophenia is seeing patterns in objects and associating them with preconceived ideas that one already holds. It’s a way of the brain trying to comprehend and make sense of things. For example, if you see the image of Jesus in the clouds, you’re experiencing pareidolia. However, if you see the image as a sign that God is speaking to you, then you’re experiencing apophenia.
Experts believe that one reason we see faces in so many inanimate objects could just be that we see so many faces in our day-to-day lives. From infancy, they are the most common stimuli that we encounter. But there are also deeper reasons we are especially prone to see faces. Our survival depends so heavily on others – whether we need them or fear them. And we are always scanning the environment to see if we are surrounded by friend or foe.
But quickly judging friend or foe is an evolutionary side-effect that explains why we see images of faces in everyday objects. A series of experiments conducted by Professor Alais, Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney revealed the neuroscience behind pareidolia. Alais maintains that imagined faces are processed in the same biased way as real faces. And, as social creatures, we look for meaning in those 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. We know these objects are not truly faces, yet the perception of a face lingers. Pareidolia faces are not discarded as false detections but undergo facial expression analysis in the same way as real faces. We need to read the identity of the face and discern its expression. Are they a friend or a foe? Are they happy, sad, angry, pained?” - David Alais (The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.)
In a 2021 study, researchers found that illusory faces engage social perception beyond the detection of a face and emotion; they also have a perceived age and gender. Additionally, we report a striking bias in gender perception, with many more illusory faces perceived as male than female.
Frequency histograms for face, emotion, age, and gender rating. (Wardle et al., PNAS, 2022)
Other researchers speculate that the inclination to see faces in things explains human spirituality. Studies show that religious people are more likely to see faces in ambiguous photos than atheists. Because we are wired to connect with other people and understand their motivations, some see human-like attributes and intentions in the unexplainable as a paranormal sign.
In addition, neurotic people, and people in negative moods, are more likely to experience pareidolia. In a study conducted in Tokyo, scientists showed volunteers a sheet of paper flecked with random dots, asking them what, if any, shapes they saw. Before the connect-the-dots task, all the volunteers took a survey to assess their personality types and current moods.
The researchers found that people who scored higher in neuroticism and those who were in negative moods were more likely to have found faces in the dots. Their nerves put them on higher alert for threats, and they may see danger where it actually isn’t. In a sense, danger takes the form of a face.
From a neurological perspective, objects with similar distributions of features trigger our face recognition system -- A network of brain areas specifically trained to identify the pattern of human faces. The occipital face area focuses on component parts of a face (i.e., the nose, mouth, cheekbones, etc.) while the posterior superior temporal sulcus is responsible for interpreting the dynamic aspects of a face such as where someone’s eyes are looking or if they are expressing and emotion. The fusiform face area acts as the project manager to bring all the data points together.
People who are unable to recognize faces may be suffering from pareidolia’s evil twin: prosopagnosia, a condition sometimes called face blindness. Those born with prosopagnosia have all the necessary brain regions to process facial recognition, but those regions aren’t communicating with each other effectively.
So, the next time you see a face in the foam of your latte, at least you'll know that your facial recognition system is working just fine!