Why do we see Faces in Objects?

January 28, 2016 / Humans / 0 Comments /
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Everyone will see faces and other familiar things in random objects, that in reality don’t resemble the thing they see at all. Faces are by far the most common thing to see in objects, but if you look hard enough at complex objects (say a cloud), you will usually be able to make it into something, but it a shark, a footballer or even a star destroyer. This phenomenon is called pareidolia and in this article, I will explain why it is so easy to see faces in so many objects.


What goes on in the brain

There is a specific part of the brain which is dedicated to face recognition, and damage to this part of the brain can result in a severe difficulty in recognising faces (even that of people you know). This is called prosopagnosiaand is sadly common in people who suffer strokes. This region of the brain is very sensitive, and research has shown that some neurons in this region of the brain still trigger in non-face objects, which can make us think that we have seen a face – that is how sensitive this part of the brain is.


But why does it happen?

Our brains are extremely good at learning (even when we don’t think we are learning), and to some extent they are pretty good at guessing what life will throw at us. This way, we will be more prepared for situations and react quickly. For example, if we are in a dark and scary forest at night, our brain expects scary things. So if a little bunny rabbit jumped out of a bush, or a twig unexpectedly brushed our leg, we would jump/ scream/ run. Our reaction is based mostly on what we expect to happen (which in this case is being attacked by something scary). Go there on a nice sunny day with the family, and it is completely different – the rabbit is not scary but cute, and you don’t even notice the twig…It is all about what your subconscious expects based on Image of a pepper that looks like it is going to attack youexperiences (including scary films).

The same kind of subconscious learning can be applied to pareidolia. We see faces everyday, in a variety of places, circumstances and environments, and so our brain expects to see them often. Not only that, but faces are always important to look at – is someone angry? Sad? Happy to see you? All these things can easily be read from looking at the face, and it helps you react appropriately and quickly. Quickly seeing and reading faces is essential to maintain a social structure in our society which has been a vital part of our success through our evolution and modern day. So our brains have learnt (or adapted) to see and read faces very quickly and easily. In fact, almost too easily, which is why we see faces in random objects.

The benefits of quickly outweigh the negative of quickly reading faces, which is why it is a favourable trait. Just think – if you misread a face in an apple, nothing bad is going to happen? But, if you fail to read enemy’s face to understand their intent, you could be dead. Having highly sensitive facial recognition is rarely a bad thing, but often a good thing.


Tricking predators

There is also a rather tenuous but interesting reason to our highly sensitive facial recognition. predatory animals like tigers will rarely attack you if they think they have been noticed or are being looked at. It might sound a little far fetched but in India people wear face basks on the back of their heads when going into tiger territory, and since this, there have been no tiger attacks. By doing this, tigers cannot get out of the line of sight of a face, and so will not attack. This again goes back to the idea that seeing faces has no negative effects, but might save your life. If you are in the dense jungle if you see some vines that look like a tigers face, its no big deal. If you do see a tigers face though, you just might have avoided a nasty tiger attack.



So the most accepted reason for our highly sensitive face recognition is simply a survival mechanism. We have evolved to be be very sensitive to facial patterns, which will allow us to react appropriately to situations. The advantages of this are clear – we see an angry enemy and we know that we should run or fight (not try and hug them). Being able to quickly read faces could really mean life or death, and so having highly sensitive facial recognition has become a favourable trait. This facial recognition is so sensitive that we can see faces in random object where there really isn’t a face (called pareidolia), but there isn’t any disadvantage to this happening.


Header images courtesy of Michael Pardo and pepper images courtesy of Blake Patterson

This Youtube video will give an overview of the information found on the article tab. If you want to know more about the topic, or want to see where the information came from, have a read of the article after you watch the video.

Our brains are extremely sensitive to face shapes because they give us a lot of meaning, and historically, this has been beneficial for survival. instantly recognising a friend from a foe, can mean life or death! Our brain is so highly attuned to ‘face shapes’ that it sees them in things that slightly resemble them.