Facial Pareidolia

Faces Are Everywhere Around Us, Even In Inanimate Objects This complicated title might even seem a bit scary at first glance but it is actually the definition of something rather simple.

Have you ever seen the facade of a house or a weirdly shaped rock and thought, “Hey, this kind of looks like a face”? Well, it turns out that you don’t need to have an extremely vivid, childlike imagination in order to spot a face or an emotion in different items. In fact, some animals can do it too. This juxtaposition is exactly what facial pareidolia means, and it’s been around for centuries. Here we explain why and how this fun phenomenon occurs.

How It Works

As we mentioned before, the simplest explanation for facial pareidolia is the tendency to see faces where there are none. It occurs naturally mainly because our brains are prone to recognizing patterns.

When we see something in relatively the same proportions and spatial arrangement as two eyes and a mouth, it’s easy to imagine a face even if the object itself has nothing in common with one. After our brains have made this assumption, our second reaction is to determine the emotion and determination it has towards us or the environment.

Is the perceived face looking at us, is it happy, scared, or sad?

All these give us information on what we should do next and how we should react towards it or our common environment. If we should smile, look at something around us, or even run.

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Our minds are so used to this process that we give inanimate objects direction of gaze and even feelings sometimes. It has been proven through different studies that the mechanisms we use when seeing a human face showing a specific emotion are the same as when we experience facial pareidolia.

And this is why these items can look scared, excited or even resemble a certain character we know of.

How It Happened

Facial pareidolia is a common condition related not only to our biology but our evolution. It dates back to so long ago that it’s highly likely some of the species we originated from had the same ability. This is because of the valuable information we can extract from other people’s faces.

If they’re scared, for example, it might be an indicator that we don’t know of something that’s a threat to us as well. If they’re angry, they might be hostile, if they’re kind, they might help us and so on and so forth. This is why from an evolutionary standpoint recognizing faces is so important that it would be better to be overly sensitive to them (like facial pareidolia) than not to be sensitive enough.

And although evolutionary cues often take premise on our reactions (angry ones mean run, scared ones – run faster, and so on), it’s been proven that our own recent experiences also have a massive influence on how we perceive facial expressions.

The specific connection we make with emotion and attractiveness is often based on what we saw and thought mere seconds ago. Studies were conducted to prove this, and they show that when we see a few happy faces in a row, it’s more likely to deem the next face happy as well.

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If we see the same face after a row of angry ones, however, we wouldn’t have the same opinion about it. This conditioning is also true if it’s not a real person we’re seeing – our perception about paintings and faces we find in everyday items also changes based on what we saw last.

So it would appear evolution is not the only force at play here.

To Wrap It Up

The more you think about it, the cooler this phenomenon gets. From a practical perspective, it shows that our brains can do some pretty complicated processes on the spot. Not only that, but we recognize human emotion so well we can even give inanimate objects feelings.

From an evolutionary standpoint, facial pareidolia is proof that we are social creatures – if we weren’t, we wouldn’t need to understand or even register that someone else is like us. Based on such little fun phenomena that are a part of the human condition, we can certainly say that life really is fascinating. How often does this happen to you and what was the last face you saw? Comment below!