Pareidolia Search 2

Posted by on April 26, 2011 in Thoughts | 1 comment

The human brain has been evolving over millions of years to get to the state it is in now. In today’s society, sometimes functions of the brain that were used for survival are now used less and less, yet we still have these functions, like a vestigial tail from times gone by. The phenomenon known as pareidolia may well be caused by one of these functions that, while it is still very useful today for everyday purposes such as recognising friends from foes, sometimes is triggered by completely unrelated objects.

From Wikipedia:

“Carl Sagan hypothesized that as a survival technique, human beings are “hard-wired” from birth to identify the human face. This allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility but can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. The evolutionary advantages of being able to identify friend from foe with split-second accuracy are numerous; prehistoric (and even modern) men and women who accidentally identify an enemy as a friend could face deadly consequences for this mistake. This is only one among many evolutionary pressures responsible for the development of the modern facial recognition capability of modern humans.”

Most of us can experience these moments, where we see a face in the power plug, or on the dashboard of a car. But what happens to us when we are looking for miracles, or for a sign from above? Then we start to place weight in random occurrences, like the way a pancake cooks, or the pattern left by an oil spill on a garage floor. Even in MRI scans, or on Google Earth.

Of course if one were to be facing a different direction, or if an image is rotated, then the appearance of a face may be lost. The phenomenon is pretty simple really, and it has to do with the layout of 3 or four objects, with two up higher, and another down low, thus forming eyes and a mouth. Other obvious shapes can add to this such as a nose or ears, but we just assign these properties to the handles, holes and smudges we see, because of our tendency to read meaning into the meaningless.

In addition to the idea of being “hard-wired”, we must also remember that the very first thing we see as babies is a face, whether it’s the face of your mother or someone else, and having never seen one before, we have to piece together the meanings of these parts presented to us. What starts out to us as three dark markings, two up high and one down low, becomes a faces, and from this point on we depend upon faces to communicate our intentions and ideas, to read what others are trying to say, and to avoid people who might do us harm.

But there are those among us who cannot see faces. As I’ve written previously, there are those who suffer from Prosopagnosia, such as Chuck Close and Dr Oliver Sacks, and thereby gather their cues about people in the world from other places. I wonder if these people would also experience pareidolia, but in other forms such as sounds?

The photos in this entry were sent in by reader Stephen Minhinnick, I hope you enjoy these examples also. If you have any other examples, please contact me via the feedback form and I will post them in subsequernt articles.

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1 Comment

  1. I must say, these images are both interesting and highly evocative of faces, at least to me.

    It would be even more interesting for us to eventually pin down the precise causes and mechanisms of pareidolia, though that may be difficult at best.

    We’ll at least have to look, though.

    I suspect I’m especially prone to it myself, though now I look at it from a better understanding of what it is and what it does than I once had.

    Good post, Marty.

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