Lifeless objects stare at you everywhere. A new study explains why they will not stop

If you see a face in a cloud, in the slots of a power point, or on the side of a house, there is a term for: face pareidolia. This strange perception phenomenon makes lifeless, busy objects appear to have facial features – the basic shapes of two eyes and a mouth are often all it takes to imagine a face looking at you.

This common phenomenon can be seen everywhere when we miss these rudimentary facial features in order to exist: even galactic scale phenomena can do us the same strange double task.

“This basic pattern of functions that define the human face is something that our brains are particularly tuned to, and will likely be what draws our attention to pareidolia objects,” says behavioral neuroscientist Colin Palmer of the University of New South Wales (UNSW). ) in Australia.

“But the perception of faces is not just about noticing the presence of a face. We also need to recognize who that person is, and read information about their face, such as whether they pay attention to us, and whether they are happy or have been transferred. “

010 faces in objects 2(Harry Grout / Unsplash)

That distinction – not just seeing a face, but reading social and emotional information from it – could tell us how deeply pareidolia objects are processed in our brains and visual systems.

One thing we do know is that not only do people see faces where no one is. A 2017 study found that rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) also appear illusory faces on inanimate objects, and numerous other studies have examined the neural mechanisms that may be behind the phenomenon in humans.

In new research, Palmer and fellow UNSW psychologist Colin Clifford sought to investigate whether facial paradeolia involves the activation of sensory mechanisms designed to record social information from human faces.

To do this, they recruited 60 participants for experiments in which pareidolia objects saw more than one side (left) than the other. Repeated observations of faces doing this create a visual illusion called sensory adjustment – in this case, the gaze began to ‘shift’ to the right.

“If you repeatedly see images of faces looking to your left, your perception will change over time, making the faces look more right than they really are,” says Palmer.

“There is evidence that this reflects a kind of habituation process in the brain, in which cells involved in detecting gaze alter their sensitivity when we repeatedly expose them to faces with a particular gaze direction.”

010 faces in objects 2(Tom Hentoff / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

“We found that repeated exposure to pareidolia objects that appear to have a specific direction of attention … causes a systematic bias in the subsequent perception of eye direction more generally, reflected in judgments about eye contact with human faces,” the researchers in their new paper in more technical terms.

“Adjustment to gaze direction is thought to reflect plasticity in neural mechanisms that encode the perceptual characteristics of a face. These effects of cross-adjustment indicate overlap in the sensory mechanisms underlying our experience of facial pareidolia and human social attention. “

The results, the team suggests, mean that facial paradeolia goes beyond a purely cognitive or mnemonic effect, and reflect information processing into higher-level sensory mechanisms in the visual system, normally used to read emotional states on faces – e.g. if someone is smiling and happy with us, missing, or even furious.

That ability not to notice face shapes but to read facial emotions is very important, seeing as the faces can reveal about those who wear them.

“There’s an evolutionary advantage to being really good or really efficient at detecting faces. It’s socially important to us. It’s also important at detecting predators,” Palmer said.

Because of that essential importance, it is better to notice more faces than not, in a sense, because even if we think we are seeing a face that consists of two windows and a door, it is not exactly problematic. But faces could not be discovered.

“If you have evolved to be very good at detecting faces, this can then lead to false positions, where you sometimes see faces that are not real,” Palmer says.

“Another way to put this is that it’s better to have a system that is too sensitive to detect faces, than one that is not sensitive enough.”

The findings are reported in Psychological science.