Posts Tagged ‘Face Recognition’

A Stereotypical Blog Post

November 27th, 2020 No comments

During my sophomore year of high school, my once favorite teacher—Mrs. Kahler—shamelessly looked at me, smiled, and exclaimed, “You’re lucky! God taught you Jews how to handle money well! It’s in your blood.” At the time, I actually didn’t mind. I had heard my fair share of jokes about Jews and, perhaps naturally, something about me—be it my nose, financial status, or diet—always seemed to be the punchline. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but inform her that those “Jews are great with money” jokes aren’t funny—nor are they particularly accurate. Unfortunately, this experience is common. In fact, even Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has to deal with harmful, pejorative stereotypes. Most recently, Harris experienced these stereotypes from President Donald Trump himself, as he appeared to weaponize the classic trope of the ‘angry Black woman,’ labeling her “nasty,” “mad,” and “angry” after an impressive cross-examination of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Most recently, Harris faced public criticism following her debate against Vice President Mike Pence, after she faced repeated interruptions and simply attempted to keep the discussion fair by saying, “I’m speaking.”  Read more…

Are you sure about that? How different lineup presentations affect eyewitness testimony

November 24th, 2020 No comments

Imagine that you find yourself being a stand-in for a police lineup, they called you in because you roughly match the profile of the suspect. Yet you know in your heart that you never committed the crime, you were sitting on your couch at the time that the crime occurred, but nobody could verify your whereabouts. You glance around at the other people in the lineup with you, and you notice that they bear a strange resemblance to you, like a bad photocopy. But you know that there is a possibility that the real suspect, the actual person who committed the crime is somewhere in the lineup. Behind the two way mirror stands a victim, pointing to your face and telling the detectives with earnest that it was you who they saw. Next thing you know, you are locked up in a prison cell in a scratchy uniform with dangerous criminals eyeing you up. For 15 years you maintain innocence and for 15 years you sit and wait for justice to be served. But it never does. You serve your full sentence for the murder of someone that you didn’t even know. 15 years of your life that you will never get back. Your reputation is ruined and there is no going back to the way things were before. False eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, most for major crimes such as murder and rape. And while you may be moping about that the entire criminal justice system failed YOU (and it most certainly did), the actual perpetrator is still walking free! This situation is exactly what Sir William Blackstone warned against in his famous statement that it is “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – meaning that it is better to focus on finding those who are guilty but not at the expense that an innocent person should go to jail. 

A peep in a simultaneous line-up

The devastating consequences of arresting innocent people and locking them in jail for several years can be exemplified in the case of the Exonerated Five, in which five youth individuals who were African American and Hispanic were imprisoned for aggravated assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park (read more about them here). They served out their sentences before being exonerated when the true perpetrator confessed. Instead of going to high school and being a carefree teen like the rest of individuals in their age group (14-16), the Exonerated Five were sitting in prison for a crime they did not commit. Eyewitness identification did not play a role in this case, but the Exonerated Five exemplifies how harmful wrongful imprisonment is. As it relates to eyewitness identification, when the people in the lineup are a different race than the eyewitness, they are already at a disadvantage. The Own-Race Effect is the phenomenon that occurs when we can recognize people that are of our own race better than people of different races (read more here). This puts BIPOC (black/indigenous/people/of/color) at a higher risk of being misidentified, especially when the rates of black people getting arrested is disproportionately larger than any other raceHundreds of innocent people (a majority of them BIPOC) have been sent to jail for major crimes such as rape and murder on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The Innocence Project works at exonerating people stuck in this situation on the basis of DNA evidence.

Read more…

Brett Cohen? I Know Him. He’s Famous: Why Do We Recognize Unfamiliar “Celebrities” and Go Crazy for Them??

November 22nd, 2020 No comments

Hey You! (YES YOU!) Have you ever thought about being famous? Imagine when you are walking in the street, everybody goes crazy for you. They shout your name and ask for an autograph or a selfie with you. Woo, enjoy the fame and attention!

Have you ever dreamed of being FAMOUS? (Meme Generator)

Read more…

Toast and a side of Pareidolia all for the bargain price of $28,000!

November 19th, 2020 No comments

Imagine yourself on a chilly day cooking up a nice golden-brown grilled cheese sandwich. You go to take your first bite, when all of a sudden you see the Virgin Mary staring back at you imprinted in the char of the toast. This is how Diane Duyser started one of her days back in 1994, thinking that she had been blessed by the Virgin Mary because of this vague imagery on her toast. This grilled cheese sandwich ended up being sold for $28,000 because Duyser was able to market it as having mystical powers. However, mechanisms of cognitive psychology would reveal that the true power at work in this story is pareidolia.

Fig. 1: Diane Duyser and her famous piece of toast.

Pareidolia is the tendency to perceive an often meaningful entity in a random or ambiguous stimulus. I will be focusing on face pareidolia which is the most common form of pareidolia (Taubert, Wardle, Flessert, Leopold, & Ungerleider, 2017). Face Pareidolia can be specifically defined as seeing face-like features in everyday objects. Some additional examples of face pareidolia can be seen in figure 2 and figure 3 in the form of memes. (Here are 30 more examples!) Now that you’ve had a few laughs about these often hilarious faces, it is time to answer the question: how and why do we experience pareidolia?

Fig. 2: Pareidolia for someone with a broken heart.

Fig. 3: Donald Trump as a cardboard box?

In order to answer this question, we need to examine the processes of pattern recognition and face recognition. Pattern recognition is the process of constructing a mental representation and assigning meaning to it. Face recognition is a unique form of pattern recognition that uses a specific area in our brains called the right fusiform face area (rFFA) to selectively respond to face stimuli. Empirical evidence has shown that the rFFA not only activates when processing real faces, but also when processing instances of face pareidolia (Liu, Li, Feng, Li, Tian, & Lee, 2014). This means that we are able to see illusionary faces because we are applying the same perceptual processes we used to see real faces to see the illusionary faces. The perceptual processes that are facilitated by our rFFA is the interaction between our bottom-up information from our visual cortices and top-down signals from the prefrontal cortex (Liu, et al. 2014). Bottom-up information are the visuals we experience when looking at the illusionary face, like seeing the ovular hole in the cardboard box in figure 3. Top-down signals are the pieces of prior knowledge and context that can help inform us that an ovular hole can typically signify a mouth. This means that human face processing has a strong top-down component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face (Liu, et al. 2014). In summary, we sometimes see illusionary faces in random objects because we are using the rFFA which recognizes faces at the slightest suggestion of their features.

Not only is the recognition of face pareidolia similar to how we recognize real faces, but evidence has shown that we process these illusionary faces at a deep social level. A study showed that we pay attention to the gaze direction of face pareidolia (Palmer, & Clifford, 2020). Gaze direction is key information for creating eye contact which is an essential social mechanism between humans. This means that face pareidolia is processed by sensory mechanisms in our visual system that have been developed to extract and encode specific social content from human faces. We know that the object does not have a mind, but we cannot help but see it as having social qualities (Palmer, & Clifford, 2020).

This leads me to my next point about why the brain feels the need to recognize faces so often. This tendency to detect faces in ambiguous visual information is perhaps highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face (Liu, et al. 2014). This reasoning is supported by a study that found that infants aged 10 months old experience pareidolia once they make the connection that the mouth is a sound source. Infants discover that faces convey primal information for our social life, like the sound we use to communicate, triggering them to try and recognize faces at the slightest suggestion of one leading to their first experiences with face pareidolia (Kato, & Mugitani, 2015). Pareidolia is not only reserved for humans. Other social animals have been shown to experience face pareidolia like the rhesus monkey. The ease with which both humans and rhesus monkeys perceive illusionary face structures in random objects highlights the biological advantage for social animals to preferentially detect faces in their environment (Taubert, et al. 2017).

In conclusion, we are able to experience pareidolia because we use our rFFA which uses the same perceptual processes to see the illusionary faces in random objects as the real faces we see everyday. The rFFA is geared to recognize faces at the slightest suggestion of a face meaning that this highly sensitive face detection system comes with the small cost of frequent false positives which are the times in which we can experience pareidolia. Furthermore, we have this urge to find faces because they convey primal information for our social life. So the next time you see a face where there isn’t one, you’ll know what your brain is doing and why.


Kato, M., & Mugitani, R. (2015) Pareidolia in Infants. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118539. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0118539

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.

Palmer, C. J., & Clifford, C. W. G. (2020). Face pareidolia recruits mechanisms for detecting human social attention. Psychological Science, 31(8), 1001–1012.

Taubert, J., Wardle, S. G., Flessert, M., Leopold, D. A., & Ungerleider, L. G. (2017). Face pareidolia in the rhesus monkey. Current Biology, 27(16), 2505-2509.

Do You See What I See? I See Jesus in Toast!

April 25th, 2018 2 comments

Have you ever gone to hang up your coat and thought, “An angry octopus is staring right at me!” Did you wonder afterwards if this is common and if everyone was seeing what you were seeing? This is known as a phenomenon called pareidolia, where external stimuli (such as coat hangers) trigger perceptions of non-existent entities (such as faces) presenting an erroneous match between internal representations and sensory inputs (Liu et al., 2014). Face pareidolia is the most common form, which is where humans tend to see faces in non-face objects (Ichikawa et al., 2011). Some examples include seeing a face in the clouds, Jesus in toast, or the Virgin Mary in a tortilla (to see more cool examples of pareidolia, click here!) How and why does this happen?

Washing Machine Pareidolia Example

Angry Octopus Pareidolia Example

To examine these questions, we must delve into the process of pattern recognition and face recognition in cognitive psychology. Pattern recognition is the process of constructing a mental representation and assigning meaning to it. Pattern recognition relies tremendously on top-down processing, which is the idea that we use prior knowledge, context, and expectations to aid our perceptions.

Read more…

Everything has Feelings – Anthropomorphize with Me Now

April 17th, 2017 6 comments

Image result for pixar lamp

Do you often find yourself talking to things that can’t respond?  What about not wanting to throw things away because you’ll hurt their feelings?  Do you give inanimate objects personalities?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you anthropomorphize!  Also, your amygdala is probably fine and you probably aren’t autistic.

Read more…

T-E-A-M GO TEAM: The Cheerleader Effect

April 17th, 2017 3 comments

Middle School Man…

In middle school I hated the popular girls because they were so damn pretty. Have you ever hated a group of people because they were good looking? Maybe you thought that a team was automatically attractive without seeing every member? If so then you, like middle-school-me, have fallen victim to the Cheerleader Effect. Read more…

Pleasure from your pain: how the empathy bias makes us kinda shitty people

April 17th, 2017 9 comments

Notice the girl wearing a white sweater in the background smiling as she walks by? Her reaction could be a perfect example of the empathy bias. (

Remember in high school when there was that clique (or whatever the boy-version of a clique would be called) that you absolutely loved to hate and got a sense of personal pleasure when something went wrong for a member of the group? For example, when the fourteen-year-old you watched that annoyingly pretty girl drop her lunch in the cafeteria all over her side-kick best friend, you laughed and felt a swell of happiness. I might not be able to claim that you’re not still a slightly shitty person for feeling that way, but cognitive psychology research may have some reasoning behind those feelings and it’s called the empathy bias.

Read more…

Why Do You See That Face that’s NOT There?

April 17th, 2017 3 comments

Have you ever thought about seeing things that are not there? At first glance, this might sound like a bizarre suggestion, unless, of course, you are a philosophically-minded person (if that’s the case, read Descartes!); it is, undoubtedly, a logical possibility, but it is a possibility that seems only able to realize itself in a movie, or in the cases of unfortunate people who suffer from mental disorders. But interestingly, this kind of phenomenon does exist in our life, and it is actually very prevalent, at least for seeing one particular object: faces.

I guess you are now suspicious, but recall the last time that you or someone else saw a face in the cloud; or this image showing a cute, smiling “face” on the back of a chair. But obviously, there is no face. Still, we recognize them, with considerable ease. This tendency for us to see faces where there aren’t any is called face pareidolia. And this tendency can be very useful, and sometimes even profitable. Artists, such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo, have long exploited this tendency to create some of the most imaginative paintings (to read more about Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s work, click here); moreover, the ability to see Virgin Mary in toast is obviously worth 28,000 dollars on eBay (to see the news, click here). Given its prevalence and potential value, it’s natural to wonder how exactly do we recognize those non-existent faces? Saddly, I don’t know the answer for sure, but perhaps I could offer some possible explanation.

Read more…

Either you’re in or you’re out: The power of in-group bias

April 16th, 2017 1 comment

Have you ever seen someone wearing a shirt with a political candidate you don’t like, and automatically assumed the worst about him or her? Or perhaps you have been at a sporting event, and felt a strong connection towards fans cheering for your team. Why do we make judgments about people we know nothing about based on their group identification? Why do we assume good things about strangers who are more similar to us, or bad things about anyone who differs? What justifies this behavior?

In-group biases 

Read more…