Why seeing fake faces isn’t, well, weird

If you think this roof is watching you, don’t be alarmed.

The phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects is not uncommon and it has both a scientific name – face pareidolia – and, it seems, a scientific explanation.

Researchers from Australia’s UNSW say they have shown that we process these fake faces using the same visual mechanisms of the brain that we do for real ones. They also suggest it may be a product of our evolution, noting it was previously observed in monkeys.

“This basic pattern of features that defines the human face is something that our brain is particularly attuned to and is likely to be what draws our attention to pareidolia objects,” says lead researcher Colin Palmer.

“A striking feature of these objects is that they not only look like faces but can even convey a sense of personality or social meaning. For example, the windows of a house might feel like two eyes watching you, and a capsicum might have a happy look on its face.”

In the study published in the journal Psychological Science, Palmer and colleague Colin Clifford used a process called sensory adaptation to test whether the mechanisms that extract information from a person’s face, such as whether they are happy or sad, also are at play when looking at an inanimate object.

“We found that repeated exposure to pareidolia faces that conveyed a specific direction of attention (for example, objects that appeared to be looking towards the left) caused a change in the perception of where human faces are looking,” says Palmer.

“We think face pareidolia is a kind of visual illusion. We know that the object doesn’t really have a mind, but we can’t help but see it as having mental characteristics like a ‘direction of gaze’ because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with basic face-like features.”

The researchers suggest face pareidolia may be an evolutionary advantage, perhaps inherited from primates, with our brain evolving to facilitate social interaction.

“There is an evolutionary advantage to being really good or really efficient at detecting faces, it’s important to us socially,” Palmer says. “It’s also important in detecting predators. If you’ve evolved to be very good at detecting faces, this might then lead to false positives, where you sometimes see faces that aren’t really there.

“It’s better to have a system that’s overly sensitive to detecting faces, than one that is not sensitive enough.”

Long-term Palmer says the study raises new questions about the understanding of cognitive disorders, with implications for every day social functioning.

“Understanding face perception is important when you consider conditions or traits like face prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognise faces, and the autism spectrum, which can include difficulties in reading information from other people’s faces, such as their emotional state.”

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