Whether in a cloud, the front of a car, or a $ 28,000 toasted sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary, seeing faces in lifeless objects is a common experience.
According to new research from the University of Sydney, our brains detect and react emotionally to these illusory faces in the same way they do to real human faces.
Face pareidolia – seeing faces in random objects or patterns of light and shadow ̵
Lead researcher Prof David Alais, of the University of Sydney, said that human brains are evolutionarily hard to recognize faces with highly specialized brain areas for face detection and treatment.
“We are such a sophisticated social species and facial recognition is very important,” Alais said. “You have to recognize who it is, is it family, is it a friend or foe, what are their intentions and feelings?
“Faces are discovered incredibly quickly. The brain seems to do this … using some sort of template-matching procedure, so if it sees an object that appears to have two eyes over a nose over a mouth, then it goes: ‘Oh, I see a face. ‘
“It’s a little fast and loose, and sometimes it makes mistakes, so something that looks like a face will often trigger this template match.”
The researchers showed people a sequence of faces – a jumble of both real faces and pareidolia images – and had participants rate each facial expression on a scale between angry and happy.
The researchers found that lifeless objects had a similar emotional priming effect as real faces.
“What we found out was that these pareidolia images are actually processed by the same mechanism that would normally process emotions in a real face,” Alais said.
“You are somehow unable to completely turn off this facial response and emotional response and see it as an object. It remains an object and a face at the same time. ”
The study may help inform research into artificial intelligence or facial disorders such as prosopagnosia, he said.
Previous research co-authored by Alais showed that when judging a range of faces, the perception of a person’s appearance was biased by the previously shown image. “If the previous one was attractive, they rated the current one more attractive,” Alais said.
“This is also happening with expression,” he said. “If you’ve seen a happy face before, the next face will be judged a little happier.”
The latest study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.