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Why Seeing Faces in Everyday Objects Can Creep You Out

New research explains why we sometimes take them personally.

 Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash
Two eyes and a mouth—it doesn’t take much for our brains to construct a face—or in this case, two faces looking back at us.
Source: Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash

Many people have described looking at their breakfast only to find it staring back at them: a scowl in the foam of your morning coffee, Jesus in your cheese toast, or a monster in your scrambled eggs. And when that happens? Some people get goosebumps or feel the face has personal meaning and they freak out.

But researchers say this phenomenon known as pareidolia (pronounced para-dole-eia) is perfectly normal because we are primed to see faces in all sorts of everyday objects. This human tendency to see face-like structures in inanimate objects relates to how our brains are hard-wired. Previous studies have identified specialized regions in the brain that react to both human faces and to people’s beliefs that they see a face to extract information about who they are, do we know them, or are they safe or threatening.

A New Study

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science tested whether the same mechanism in the brain that extracts social information when one person looks at another is also activated when someone experiences face pareidolia. The study led by Dr. Colin Palmer at the University of South Wales School of Psychology used a process known as “sensory adaptation,” in which your perception is affected by what you have recently seen. In the study, people were repeatedly exposed to faces that were looking to the left. When presented with a face looking directly at them, they said that the eyes were looking somewhat to the right.

The research team found that repeated exposure to “pareidolia faces” that appear to have a specific direction of gaze causes a systematic bias in your perception of where human faces are looking. “If you are repeatedly shown pictures of faces that are looking towards your left, for example, your perception will actually change over time so that the faces will appear to be looking more rightwards than they really are,” says Palmer. “There is evidence that this reflects a kind of habituation process in the brain, where cells involved in detecting gaze direction change their sensitivity when we are repeatedly exposed to faces with a particular direction of gaze.”

The investigators surmised this happens because overlapping sensory mechanisms are activated when we view human faces and when we experience face pareidolia. The researchers also found that these effects were significantly reduced when face-like features were removed from the objects.

Our instinctive assumption that everyday objects are conveying an emotion to us reveals something about our internal mechanism and that we’re projecting our feelings onto these ordinary objects. Even though we understand that pareidolia objects don’t have emotions, we can’t help but see them as having personality traits like a “direction of gaze” because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with face-like features.

The investigators noted that face pareidolia is a visual illusion that conveys a sense of personality, social meaning, or evokes feelings in us. If you feel like a pareidolia object is looking at you with disdain, questioning your motives, or conveying some emotion, it might be because the features of the object are activating a mechanism in your brain that becomes active to read that kind of information from human faces.

Why Does Pareidolia Occur?

But why does the pareidolia phenomenon occur? The scientists believe it’s a product of evolution since previous studies noted the phenomenon among monkeys, suggesting the brain function has been inherited from primates. Thus, for survival purposes, the human mind is wired to read information from people’s faces such as recognizing who they are, whether they’re paying attention to us or whether they’re upset or happy to see us or intend harm. It’s better to have a neural mechanism that has evolved to be expert at detecting faces especially those that reflect threat—even if it’s overly sensitive than one that is not sensitive enough.

For example, this mechanism might lead to a false positive as when your boss throws you a look while you’re speaking in a meeting, and you interpret that she’s displeased with something you said. Later she remarks how pleased she was with the point you made in the meeting. The next time you see a ghost staring back at you from your vegetable soup, don’t fret. It’s not sending you a covert message or out to get you. More than likely it’s just the activation of a neural mechanism in your brain overprotecting you from threats, keeping you safe, and helping you face life's challenges.

References

Palmer, C.J., & Clifford, C. (2020). Face pareidolia recruits mechanisms for detecting human social attention. Psychological Science, 31 (8).

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