The human brain tends to perceive faces on inanimate objects.
The world is a complex, untamed place, and it exists regardless of our ability to recognize it. Landscapes pile up on top of each other, overlapping (or not at all) and crowding into mountain ranges, fjords and rainforests. The wind constantly changes the canvas of clouds that cover the sky, and under them their own shadows parade, trying to follow them in a rush, sliding over the irregular topography of the globe.
Every twenty-four hours the light comes and goes and everything that reflects it totally changes its appearance. Even on a smaller scale, our chances of knowing directly through our senses do not improve.
Do you know what a ‘Pareidolia’ is?
Animal life, endowed with autonomous movement, is characterized by changing its place, shape and appearance infinite times throughout a generation, and changes in the frequencies of light, added to the continuous change of place and position of our bodies, make that the raw data of everything we perceive is a chaos impossible to understand.
Pareidolia as a way of finding meanings
Fortunately, our brain is equipped with some mechanisms to recognize patterns and continuities in the midst of all that sensory clutter. Neural networks are the perfect way to create systems that always activate the same when faced with apparently different stimuli. Hence, we can recognize the people close to us despite their physical and psychological changes. Hence also that we can apply similar strategies in different contexts, apply what we have learned to different situations and even recognize plagiarism in a piece of music. However, this ability also has a very striking side effect called pareidolia.
Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon consisting of the recognition of significant patterns (such as faces) in ambiguous and random stimuli. Take, for example, this duck:
Once you have realized that its beak looks like the cartoonish head of a dog, you can never stop having this effect every time you see a duck of this type. But not all pareidolias are as discreet as this one. Evolutionarily we have developed neural networks in charge of processing relevant stimuli, so that some patterns are much more evident to us than others.
In fact, at some point in our evolution the visual system with which we are equipped became incredibly sensitive to stimuli that resemble human faces, a part of the body that is of great importance for non-verbal communication. Later, at one point in our history, we became capable of making countless objects following simple, recognizable, and regular patterns. And at that moment the party began:
Spindle twist: our face radar
Our brains are equipped with specific circuits that are activated to process visual information related to faces differently from other data, and the part of the brain that contains these circuits is also responsible for the phenomenon of pareidolia.
This structure is called a fusiform turn, and in a matter of hundredths of a second it makes us see faces where there are, but also where there are none. Furthermore, when this second possibility occurs, we cannot avoid having the strong feeling of looking at someone, even if that someone is actually a griffin, a rock or a facade. That’s the subconscious power of the fusiform twist – whether we like it or not, it will kick in whenever we see something vaguely reminiscent of a face. It is the counterpart for having designed a brain that is prepared to face a large number of changing and unpredictable stimuli.
So, although because of these pareidolias we sometimes feel watched …
… and although sometimes we notice that we have missed a joke …
One of the many greats of the human brain
… it is good to remember that these phenomena have their reason for being in the special treatment that our brain gives to patterns that can be read in the middle of the coming and going of confused images. Our brains make us wise, but nature makes our brains useful. Starting today, when your brain detects a face where there is only one object, you will also remember this article.