Ever looked up at the sky and seen a face in the clouds? Or seen a trash bin that looks like its smiling back at you? While seeing faces in everyday objects might sound like one’s in need of a psychologic evaluation, luckily this particular illusion is quite common and is called face pareidolia.
According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers may have finally figured out what causes these strange illusions. Previous research has found that when humans experience face pareidolia there is an activation of the fusiform face area (FFA) of the brain, similar to when we see a real face.
Face Pareidolia – more than a cognitive phenomena
Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) set out to test their hypothesis whether face pareidolia is not just limited to a cognitive association but also activation of the visual mechanisms that are responsible for interpreting social cues when looking at human faces. A total of thirty participants were recruited for the study and two experiments were conducted to investigate the mechanism of face pareidolia.
In experiment 1 participants were shown pictures of inanimate objects with pareidolia faces gazing in one particular direction. They were then shown 3D models of human faces with different gaze directions. Using a rotating pointer, they were then asked to report the direction of the gaze. Results showed that participants perceived the human faces to be gazing in the opposite direction as the pareidolia faces.
For experiment 2, a different set of 30 participants were recruited. Participants were required to complete a task similar to experiment 1 however, the pareidolia face images were modified to remove all face-like features. Results showed that cross-adaptation effects are slightly but significantly reduced when the face like features are removed from the pareidolia images.
The authors of the study state that while we are aware of the object not possessing a mind, “we cannot help but see it as having social qualities, such as gaze direction, because of mechanisms in our visual system that are spontaneously engaged by objects with facelike visual characteristics.”
The results of the study thus indicate that face pareidolia is a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when our visual system, which is responsible for processing specific social cues from human faces, is activated. Face pareidolia is therefore considered an evolutionary skill adapted by humans over time to improve their social interactions.
Palmer, C. J., & Clifford, C. W. G. (2020). Face Pareidolia Recruits Mechanisms for Detecting Human Social Attention. Psychological Science, 31(8), 1001–1012. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620924814
Liu, J., Li, J., Feng, L., Li, L., Tian, J., & Lee, K. (2014). Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 53, 60–77.doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013