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

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.

Empirical evidence for the role of top-down processes in pattern and face recognition is shown through the weapons or tools task conducted by Payne (2006). In this study, participants are shown a face (black or white) and then an image of a weapon or a tool. When the initial image is a black face, people are more likely to think the picture following is a weapon rather than a tool. These results suggest that we access not only surface level information about the face (such as white or black) but also stored information such as stereotypes and that this access occurs very rapidly and probably outside of conscious awareness. So when we see a black face, we unconsciously access this store of information associated with black faces. Furthermore, this shows that stereotypical biases can affect the accuracy of processed information. Top-down information may not be relevant to the task and it can result in costly errors. In a more general sense, this suggests that top-down information during pattern recognition (and other tasks) includes both prior knowledge and expectations but also social information, and that this may be outside of an individual’s control. This study applies to more than just psychology. It helps us understand why innocent black men get shot, such as Trayvon Martin, who was shot in 2012 armed with just a bag of skittles.

In face recognition, two processes are involved: featural and configural processing. Featural processing is the idea that we process individual facial features (eyes, nose, mouth). Configural processing is the processing of the relative position of features within the face. Furthermore, research illustrates that faces are processed as whole units, not simply the sum of their parts. This is shown through the face inversion effect, which is the idea that faces are recognized significantly worse when inverted compared to inverted non-face objects (Tanaka & Simonyi, 2016). This demonstrates that we can perceive faces quite well, as long as the holistic image of the face (all of the parts) is present. Our capability to perceive faces further supports the phenomenon of pareidolia and our tendency to find meaningful patterns (such as faces) when there are none.

Bathtub Pareidolia Example

Pareidolia has been investigated and proven to be quite common through various experimental studies. For instance, Windhanger et al. (2008, 2010) examined pareidolia specifically in cars and reported that participants recognized the front of the car as a face with features, such as the eyes corresponding to headlights and seeing the nose associated with the car grille. Moreover, subjects even interpreted emotions and personality traits in the car fronts. This suggests that humans may use the same process to perceive faces in humans and objects. These studies illustrate that pareidolia is common and that there is scientific support for this phenomenon.

Why is pareidolia important? From a psychological standpoint, pareidolia helps us understand how the brain integrates bottom-up input and top-down information. This phenomenon also demonstrates that our visual system is highly attuned to perceive faces, possibly because of the social importance of faces and our ability to process them. So the next time you hang up your coat and see the angry octopus or are gazing at the sky and see a face in the clouds, now you do not have to be confused about what this phenomenon is or question if other people are seeing an angry octopus as well!

References:

  • Ichikawa, H., Kanazawa, S., & Yamaguchi, M. K. (2011). Finding a face in a face-like object. Perception, 40(4), 500-502. doi:10.1068/p6926
  • Kato, M., & Mugitani, R. (2015). Pareidolia in infants. Plos One, 10(2) 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(1), 60-77. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013
  • Payne, B. K. (2006). Weapon bias: Split-second decisions and unintended stereotyping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 287-291. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00454.x
  • Tanaka, J. W., & Simonyi, D. (2016). The “parts and wholes” of face recognition: A review of the literature. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(10), 1876-1889. doi:10.1080/17470218.2016.1146780
  • Windhager, S., Hutzler, F., Carbon, C., Oberzaucher, E., Schaefer, K., Thorstensen, T., . . .Grammer, K. (2010). Laying eyes on headlights: Eye movements suggest facial features in cars. Collegium Antropologicum, 34(3), 1075-1080.
  • Windhager, S., Slice, D. E., Schaefer, K., Oberzaucher, E., Thorstensen, T., & Grammer, K.(2008). Face to face : The perception of automotive designs. Human Nature, 19(4), 331-346. doi:10.1007/s12110-008-9047-z

 

 

 

  1. April 25th, 2018 at 20:26 | #1

    I thought that this post was super interesting! I think it is crazy that pareidolia is an actual effect. I feel like seeing faces in inanimate objects and finding meaning when there is none is so much part of human nature, so I find it crazy that there is actually a scientific reason that we do this! Previously, I didn’t really think of this as an error in processing, but after reading your post I see how it is. I also think it is super interesting how some people assign religious meaning to faces they see (such as the jesus in the toast example). I also find it interesting that the human face version of pareidolia is the most common due to its social importance. This makes me think of the way that newborn babies have an affinity for human faces!

  2. aenorc20
    May 10th, 2018 at 18:41 | #2

    I really enjoyed this post! I enjoyed learning about a phenomenon that I had experienced myself, but I was never aware that it was a real effect or knew of the actual name for it. This post made me think about holistic processing, which is when faces are processed as whole units, not as the sum of parts (features). An example of this was the parts-whole task. This task showed that facial features are recognized worse when not in the context of the face relative to features of other objects. I found this interesting because it makes me think of how we essentially assign different facial features (such as a nose, mouth, etc) to inanimate objects. I think this is partially because humans try to create patterns in order to try to make sense of stimuli.

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