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

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

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 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.

Diane Duyser and her famous piece of toast. (https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/ article223937640.html)

Pareidolia is the tendency to perceive an often meaningful entity in a random or ambiguous stimulus like a cloud, cabinet, or mountain. 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 below with the flower meme and trashcan meme examples. (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?

Pareidolia for someone with a broken heart. (https://slate.com/technology/2013/10/skull-flower-the-perfect-gift-for-halloween-photo.html)

Donald Trump as a cardboard box? (https://imgflip.com/tag/pareidolia?sort=latest)

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. A mental representation is a symbol that represents external reality. 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 respond to face stimuli. Neuroimaging of our brains has shown that the rFFA activates not only 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 examples of pareidolia or illusionary faces because we are applying the same perceptual processes we use to see real faces. The perceptual processes that are facilitated by our rFFA are our bottom-up processes that gather information from our environment and top-down processes that give meaning to the information in our environment (Liu, et al. 2014). More specifically, bottom-up information are the visuals we experience when looking at the illusionary face, like seeing the ovular hole in the cardboard box in the trashcan example. 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. 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. The evidence came from a study that showed that we pay attention to the gaze direction of face pareidolia (Palmer & Clifford, 2020). The direction in which we look is key for creating and maintaining eye contact, which is really important for social interactions and communication. This means that face pareidolia is processed by the senses in our brains that we use to extract specific social information from real faces. Humans like to make meaning out of their environment, so even though we know that the illusionary face does not have a mind, we cannot help but see it as having human qualities (Palmer & Clifford, 2020). 

It may seem a bit odd to give human qualities to an illusionary face, but it reveals why the brain feels the need to recognize faces so often. The reality is that faces convey key information to identify a person and understand how they are feeling. The tendency to detect faces in places where there are none is highly adaptive given the supreme importance of faces in our social life. (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 important 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 being present (Kato & Mugitani, 2015). Social creatures like humans see pareidolia because we have evolved to rely heavily on social information from other people’s faces.

Now it’s time to investigate other social creatures on earth and whether they share this unique phenomenon. With a bit of research we can find that pareidolia is not reserved for humans. Other social animals have been shown to experience face pareidolia like the rhesus monkey because they evolved like humans with a bias for getting social information from faces. The ease with which both humans and rhesus monkeys perceive illusionary faces in random objects highlights the biological advantage for social animals to detect faces in their environment (Taubert, et al. 2017). Over time, social creatures, like humans and rhesus monkeys, had a better chance to survive and pass down their genes if they understood that faces conveyed important social information. This caused these social creatures to sometimes see faces when they are not actually there because we evolved to see and pay attention to facial features.

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 every day. 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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013

Palmer, C. J., & Clifford, C. W. G. (2020). Face pareidolia recruits mechanisms for detecting human social attention. Psychological Science, 31(8), 1001–1012. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620924814

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.075

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