Do you start to see faces in things that otherwise don’t have faces? For example, when you’re stopped at traffic lights and you glance over at the other cars, do you notice little cars having friendly faces and big cars having mean faces, when your brain sees the various lights and grills?
Well, you’re not crazy. There’s science behind it. It’s what scientists call face pareidolia: It’s an optical illusion in which people can see a facial structure in a monotonous, everyday object, often though of as a survival instinct carried over from early humans (when being able to see a face could mean the difference between life and death).
It also tells us a bit about how our brains decode and detect social cues, at least according to new research from the University of Queensland, which has found that people are more likely to see male faces when they see a face in an object.
“The aim of our study was to understand whether examples of face pareidolia carry the kinds of social signals that faces normally transmit, such as expression and biological sex,” says Dr Jessica Taubert, a researcher from UQ’s School of Psychology.
“Our results showed a striking bias in gender perception, with many more illusory faces perceived as male than female.
“As illusory faces do not have a biological sex, this bias is significant in revealing an asymmetry in our face evaluation system when given minimal information. As illusory faces do not have a biological sex, this bias is significant in revealing an asymmetry in our face evaluation system when given minimal information.”
In studying this, researchers observed more than 3,800 participants, who were asked to identify the faces that they saw in inanimate objects. They were asked if an emotion was being expressed, if they could see an age, a biological sex or if they couldn’t see any of these things.
“We know when we see faces in objects, this illusion is processed by parts of the human brain that are dedicated to processing real faces, so in theory, face pareidolia ‘fools the brain’,” Dr Taubert added.
“Now we have evidence these illusory stimuli are being processed by the brain by areas involved in social perception and cognition, so we can use face pareidolia to identify those specific areas.
“We can compare how our brains recognise emotion, age, and biological sex, to the performance of computers trained to recognise these cues.”
If you’ve got any examples of face pareidolia, you can email them to the UQ research team.
If you want to read more about this study, you can read up about it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)