Pareidolia: faces and patterns in objects

“Walking up a road at night, I have seen a lamp, and a lighted window and a cloud make together a most complete and unmistakable face. If anyone in heaven has that face, I shall know him again.”
Gilbert Keith

The tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern The scientific explanation for some people is pareidolia, or the human ability to see shapes or make pictures out of randomness.

Leonardo da Vinci described seeing characters in realistic markings on stone walls, which could inspire his artworks.

  • In the 1950s, the Bank of Canada had to withdraw a series of banknotes because a grinning devil bounded from the random curls of the Queen’s hair.
  • The Viking spacecraft seemed to photograph a carved face in the rocky landscape of Mars.
  • Pareidolia is often the logical reason for most religious or UFO sightings.
  • In 2004, a ten-year-old cheese sandwich sold for $28,000 on eBay because it was perceived as the image of the Virgin Mary.

While we think that our eyes faithfully convey whatever is in front of us, the retina records an insufficient and confusing image that needs to be straightened up by the brain. And scientists think this “top-down processing” by the brain directs to pareidolia.

The brain makes sense of the confusion by making predictions about what we notice based on our experience and then subtly projecting those expectations onto what we see.

pareidolia comes from the Greek words “para” (παρά), meaning beyond, and “eidolon” (εἴδωλον), meaning form or image.

Pareidolia in computers

Humans are not the only ones to “see” human faces in the sea of visual cues in their environment. Like humans, computers show pareidolia. 

Pareidolia can occur in computer vision, specifically in image recognition programs, in which unclear indications can spuriously detect images or features. In the case of an artificial neural network, higher-level features correspond to more recognizable features, and enhancing these features brings out what the computer sees. 

Facial recognition software is a tough technological feat, and computers are bound to come up with false positives in the process. 

Use of pareidolia in psychology

Some psychologists utilize pareidolia in psychological examinations. Sometimes, psychologists will use the Rorschach inkblot test to interpret a person’s supposed hidden emotions. The test includes an image created by dropping ink on paper and folding the paper in half. The psychologist then asks the patient to interpret the resulting image. In theory, the patient projects their innermost thoughts onto the otherwise random image. However, this method of therapy is widely debated by psychologists, as it has no grounding in facts.

Underlying mechanisms of Pareidolia

Comprehensive studies have investigated which brain regions participate in processing real-face and face-pareidolia stimuli. However, the brain regions that exhibit activation during these processes have not yet to be fully determined.

The occurrence of face pareidolia depends on whether the stimuli contain face-like structures, whether the internal face template can match the current stimulus, and whether or not there are face-related backgrounds. It was also affected by individual differences and observers’ emotional states. Brain imaging studies point out that information from the frontal and occipital regions can be infused at the fusiform face area (FFA) when experiencing face pareidolia. 

Face pareidolia is not a disorder. In the past, seeing faces everywhere and in objects was linked to psychosis. However, seeing faces in inanimate objects is now a normal human experience.

Reference:

  • Akdeniz G, Toker S, Atli I. Neural mechanisms underlying visual pareidolia processing: An fMRI study. Pak J Med Sci. 2018 Nov-Dec;34(6):1560-1566. doi: 10.12669/pjms.346.16140. PMID: 30559823; PMCID: PMC6290235.
  • Jessica Taubert, Susan G Wardle, Clarissa T Tardiff, Elissa A Koele, Susheel Kumar, Adam Messinger, Leslie G Ungerleider, The cortical and subcortical correlates of face pareidolia in the macaque brain, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2022;, nsac031, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsac031

Image: Face on Mars (Corbis via Getty Images)

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