This building looks like a duck…and other facts about pareidolia

By Leslie Ng, Class of 2016

Quack Quack! Don’t feed me bread! Image credit: via Flickr user Tom Hentoff

We’ve all experienced it before, and we can’t escape it. Whether it’s a building that looks like a duck, or electric sockets that stare back at us; we seem to be able to make out faces from ordinary objects. The good news is you’re not going crazy, looking for faces is something that the brain is actually very good at. The bad news is that we can’t tell if our brain is playing tricks on us, or if we really are receiving a spiritual message from the heavens.

I’m telling you man, this is legit. Image credit: via Wikimedia user Polihale

You’re not going crazy…

The phenomenon is called pareidolia and occurs when you see a pattern in something where no pattern actually exists. There are many types of pareidolia and you can see things like faces, objects, animals, letters etc. However, face pareidolia seems to be most common and its not surprising because faces are special in perceptual processing. In fact, there is an entire brain area dedicated to recognising faces called the Fusiform Face area (FFA). In a study where people saw faces in noisy images (pictures where there were no patterns), neuroimaging showed that the FFA was activated and therefore was involved in processing these illusory faces too.

Pareidolia was also the basis behind the famous Rorschach inkblot test. It was used to learn about the inner psyche based on what images people saw in the inkblots. While the validity of the test is controversial, the test itself is a fun way to experience how the brain likes to search for patterns.

What do you see? Image credit: via Wikimedia user C++ que vos

I want to believe…

Many cases of pareidolia tend to have religious or paranormal undertones. Does this mean that people who hold these beliefs are more susceptible to the phenomenon? A 2013 study addressed this question by seeing if “believers” were more likely to report seeing faces in pictures of lifeless objects. The results showed that “believers” had the tendency to report seeing a face even when shown noisy images. Furthermore, they were more likely to rate the faces as more emotional compared to skeptics. This means that not everyone is equally susceptible to pareidolia, and that some people are more likely to jump to conclusions when given inadequate information.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s pareidolia! Image credit: via Flickr user DragonRal

Why are we obsessed with faces and patterns?

Our brains are wired to constantly look for faces because it’s an important part of social life. We rely on faces for all sorts of information and therefore we are constantly drawn to them. Even babies develop the ability to process faces long before they can process other objects! American Cosmologist, Carl Sagan, also suggested that recognising faces from a distance and in low visibility is an important survival skill.

In order to perceive a face, the brain has to sift through everything that you are seeing to search for a face-like pattern. The brain is able to make sense of the world by looking for patterns, and sometimes it makes mistakes by sensing something that doesn’t actually exist. So the next time you see an image of Jesus on your piece of toast, you can rest easy knowing that it’s not a divine intervention. It’s just pareidolia – plain and simple. Face the truth!