Do you see the creepy face here? With its malevolent slanting eyebrows and its ominous pursed mouth? I’ll bet you do. And that’s something called pareidolia: the tendency to see patterns, especially faces, where the stimulus is random or accidental.
This tendency is behind all kinds of things, from the imaginary face on Mars to the toasted-cheese Virgin Mary. As a cognitive scientist, I’ve been fascinated by pareidolia for years, and have a personal collection of over 200 images with accidental faces in them, including this faucet photo I took last weekend in a public restroom. Why do we see images so easily, and why are faces the most common? How does this tendency help and hinder us in our daily lives?
Humans are great pattern detectors. It’s one of the things we do best: we notice patterns in what we see, hear, feel, or experience in any way. You could say that our pattern detectors are cranked up to 11. We are especially good at spotting faces, starting from the first few days of life. As soon as babies get any control over their eyes, they seek out faces, and, according to this Stanford research, by the age of four months their brains are processing faces at nearly adult levels while they still have a hard time telling other basic shapes apart. It’s kind of like that Facebook photo process that outlines faces and asks you to tag them. It’s always scanning images for faces, just like we do, which can lead to some pretty hilarious examples of artificial pareidolia. There’s good evidence that there’s a specific part of the brain in the temporal lobe that’s specialized for recognizing faces, called the fusiform face area. So, yeah, when we say we’re wired to see faces, it’s really true.
How does this tendency help or hurt us? One theory is that it is an evolutionary advantage to note that the play of the light, the movement of the grasses, and the sounds in the dark are similar to what I noticed when a tiger took out my buddy last week, so let’s get out of here. If the similarity detector is cranked up too high I might think there’s a tiger when there isn’t one, but that’s the safe mistake to make, much better than not recognizing tiger signs when it’s really there. If we see archers and bears in the random arrangement of stars in the night sky, what harm does that do? It’s the same talent that allows us to see the nearly-invisible tracks that lead us to our prey. The problems happen when we become too invested in the reality of imaginary patterns. No, the Martians did not carve a mountain into the semblance of a human face, and no, the three people on my street who all had different forms of cancer doesn’t prove that there’s a serious environmental disaster here. Children get lots of (extremely valuable) vaccinations in their first few years, and sometimes they get sick. We see a pattern there, and people may cling to belief in that pattern even when it’s not real. (No, people, vaccinations do not cause autism.) It’s just a case of seeing a pattern that’s not there, a creepy face in a bathroom faucet. Pareidolia
I didn’t think this post had anything to do with writing, but of course it does. Readers will find any pattern that’s even hinted at (pareidolia!) and then feel cheated if the pattern isn’t fulfilled. The main character just paid for his latte with exact change? Hmmm, wonder what that’s about. Oh, look, he also had the right change for the parking meter. Maybe it’s a sign that he’s an overly-compulsive planner who made sure before he left the house he had exactly the change he would need. Or perhaps he has a magic purse that provides just the money he reaches for. The reader is now investing energy in tracking that pattern to fruition. This can be considered a corollary to the law of Chekhov’s gun; nothing should ever be inserted in fiction that isn’t needed. Unnecessary bits and pieces just spark patterns that leave readers frustrated when they don’t pan out.
Pareidolia. Love it. Respect it. Use it. Beware of it. Learn from it. And when you see a face in the clouds, just enjoy what it’s telling you about your amazing pattern-recognizing brain.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Creepy.”