It’s not just the religious who claim to see faces in inert objects. From shadowy likenesses of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in potato chips and tree stumps to the Man in the Moon, people have been spotting human portraits in faceless objects for hundreds of years.
Our reactions are perfectly normal, according to recent research from Chinese and Canadian scientists, published earlier this year in the journal Cortex. On September 18, these researchers won the Ig Nobel prize in neuroscience for their study, which uncovered the brain processes at play when someone — religious or not — sees a face where none exist.
The phenomenon of spotting human likenesses in everything from tortillas to the sky is so normal it has a name: pareidolia, Greek for “faulty image.” To test how many of us experience pareidolia, researchers showed a group of volunteers a series of black and white image scrambles.
Although all of the images were purely random assortments of dots and blobs, the researchers told the volunteers that half of them contained either faces or letters. Mysteriously, the volunteers said they spotted either faces or letters in the random images nearly a third of the time.
While they had the volunteers look at the images, the scientists measured their brain activity with an MRI. They found that the same parts of the brain that light up when we see real faces lit up in participants who saw non-existent faces — basically our brains are just tuned to recognise faces, even if it’s in a piece of burnt bread. They aren’t imagining something, but putting together the same pattern recognition that we use when we spot someone’s face out of a crowd.
Scientist Carl Sagan theorized that the reason we see faces where none exist stems from an evolutionary need to quickly discern facial expressions. Those of our ancestors who could easily decipher friend from foe had a better chance of surviving, and passed on their genes.
Recent research has suggests that this innate inclination to search out faces has even spurred our faces to become more unique than those of other species — a potential explanation for why we all look slightly different.
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