Pareidolia, seeing faces and figures where there are none
The world is a complex place , untamed, and exists independently of our ability to recognize it. The landscapes pile up on top of each other, overlapping (or not) and crowding into mountain ranges, fjords and rainforests. The wind constantly shifts the canvas of clouds that cover the sky, and underneath them parade their own shadows, which try to follow them by sliding over the irregular topography of the globe.
Every twenty-four hours the light comes and goes and everything that has the property of reflecting it changes completely in appearance. Even on a smaller scale, our possibilities of knowing directly through our senses do not improve.
Do you know what a ‘Pareidolia’ is?
Animal life, endowed with autonomous movement, is characterized by changing place, shape and appearance infinitely times over a generation, and the changes in light frequencies, added to the continuous change of place and position of our bodies, make the raw data of everything we perceive a chaos impossible to understand.
Pareidolia as a way of finding meaning
Fortunately, our brain is equipped with some mechanisms to recognize patterns and continuities in the midst of all that sensory clutter. Neural networks are the perfect means of creating systems that are always activated the same way by apparently different stimuli. Hence, we can recognize people close to us despite their physical and psychological changes. This is also why we can apply similar strategies in different contexts, apply what we have learned to different situations and even recognise plagiarism in a piece of music. However, this ability also has a very striking side effect that is called pareidolia .
Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon consisting of the recognition of significant patterns (such as faces) in ambiguous and random stimuli. Look, for example, at this duck:
Once you’ve realised that its beak looks like the caricatured head of a dog, you can never stop having this effect every time you see a duck of this type. But not all parallels are as discreet as this one. Evolutionarily we have developed neural networks in charge of processing relevant stimuli , so that some patterns are much more evident to us than others.
In fact, at some point in our evolution the visual system with which we are equipped became incredibly sensitive to those stimuli that remind us of human faces , a part of the body that is of great importance for non-verbal communication. Later, at one point in our history, we became capable of making an infinite number of objects following simple, recognizable and regular patterns. And that’s when the party started:
Fusiform swivel: our face radar
Our brains are equipped with specific circuits that are activated to process visual information about faces differently from other data, and the part of the brain that contains these circuits is also responsible for the phenomenon of paresis.
This structure is called fusiform turn , and in a matter of hundredths of a second it makes us see faces where there are any, but also where there are none. Moreover, when this second possibility occurs, we cannot help but have the strong sensation of contemplating someone, even if that someone is actually a tap, a rock or a facade. That is the subconscious power of the fusiform gyre: whether we want it or not, it will be activated every time we see something vaguely reminiscent of a face. It is the counterpart of having designed a brain that is prepared to face a great deal of changing and unpredictable stimuli.
So, even though because of these parallels we sometimes feel watched…
…and even though sometimes we feel like we’ve missed a joke…
One of the many greatnesses of the human brain
… it is good to remember that these phenomena have their reason for being in the special treatment that our brain gives to patterns that can be read in the midst of confusing images. Our brains make us wise, but nature makes our brains useful. From today, when your brain detects a face where there is only one object, you will remember this article as well.