Facial Pareidolia is the tendency of humans to see faces in random shapes and objects. It has been observed in other primates, and even in Artificial Intelligence.
Human beings are great finders of patterns.
Present us with a random collection of objects, shapes, images, or numbers and letters, and our brain may turn them into something else. Look up at the sky and you might see a cloud that looks like a rabbit; look at a set of statistics and you might find connections that only you perceive.
This trait is known as Apophenia, and its explanation is not fully known.
A subtype of this phenomenon is Facial Pareidolia, which denotes seeing human faces in inanimate objects; the plug socket that looks like a smiley face, the piece of toast that looks like Jesus. Perhaps the best known example is the Man in the Moon.
The development of this trait is also not completely understood, but may have provided an evolutionary advantage.
Humans are social animals, we live and congregate in groups. We are highly expressive, communicating our emotional state and needs through a variety of methods.
Body language, and facial expressions, are important; even more so in the millennia before written and verbal communication.
‘Face perception isn’t just about noticing the presence of a face. We also need to recognise who that person is, and read information from their face, like whether they are paying attention to us, and whether they are happy or upset.’
– Dr Colin Palmer, University of New South Wales
Early humans watched one another carefully, to better understand each other. A big focus was on the face, a complicated instrument that can convey an array of emotions and other information.
The importance of observing facial expressions was wired into our ancestors. Early humans who did this well were more likely to be socially accepted, successful, and eventually mate.
Dr Colin Palmer, of the University of NSW, thinks this provides the explanation for Facial Pareidolia.
Palmer led a study in 2020 that monitored brain activity in people who looked at actual human faces, and various objects that resembled faces. Both sets of images triggered neural activity in the same parts of the brain.
‘There is an evolutionary advantage to being really good or efficient at detecting faces, it’s important to us socially. It’s also important in detecting predators.
So 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.’
– Dr Palmer
And so we see a grater that looks like it is happy, and a halved capsicum that looks like it is not.
Other studies have shown that primates, our closest relatives, also experience Facial Pareidolia, which provides some support to the theory. Although the idea is not universally accepted.
What is established is how common Facial Pareidolia is, in humans. It is experienced by nearly everyone, and on a regular basis.
A few examples have even become famous, in their own right.
The Face on Mars
In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 lander was in orbit around Mars, surveying the planet, when it came across an incredible sight: what appeared to be a giant sculpture of a human head, staring back into space!
While Mission Control quickly determined the ‘face’ was a Martian rock formation known as a Mesa, covered by unusual shadows, the image generated enormous interest. Some people claimed, and still claim, it as evidence of an ancient civilisation on the red planet.
It is perhaps one of the most famous photos ever taken.
NASA returned to the location, in Cydonia, in March 1998 with a much better camera, and its new images were clearer… and less exciting. The conspiracy theories persist.
The Badlands Guardian
Another large scale face is the Badlands Guardian, which resembles a native American overlooking the surrounding plains.
Located in isolated territory in south-western Canada, near the town of Medicine Hat, the Guardian was only discovered in 2005; Lynn Hickox, a resident of Saskatoon, stumbled across it while using Google Earth. Hickox was looking for a nearby dinosaur museum, and was scrolling randomly.
The image was formed by rain erosion, on the soft clay soil of the hills.
To add another unusual element, the Guardian now appears to be wearing bud headphones; the earpiece is actually a gas well, and the cable an access road.
Satan in the Smoke
Photojournalist Mark D. Phillips was on hand to record the terrible events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Centre. One of the photos he snapped came moments after the second plane hit.
This photo was picked up by the Associated Press and published by several news outlets.
Unbeknown to Phillips, he had also captured what appeared to many observers to be the face of Satan, in the clouds of smoke. A media frenzy ensued.
So much time was devoted to discussing the devil that two computer scientists at the university of El Paso, Vladik Kreinovich and Dima Iourinski, later published a detailed geometric breakdown showing how the image had occurred naturally.
The Virgin Mary Toast
In 1994, Diane Duyser, a resident of South Florida, made herself a grilled cheese sandwich. After taking one bite, she noticed an unusual image on one side of the toasted bread: what appeared to be the Virgin Mary.
Duyser, a Christian, put the rest of the sandwich in a sealed plastic container packed with cotton balls.
Ten years later, in 2004, she listed the item on ebay. The online auction site originally pulled the listing, thinking it was a joke; when Duyser confirmed the existence of the sandwich, it was reinstated.
The resulting auction was won by the Golden Palace Casino, an online betting company that said they would use it for promotional purposes, and to raise money for charity. Their winning bid was $28 000.
Facial recognition software is part of our modern technological environment. It is widely used for security purposes – unlocking your phone, or secured locations – and in data analysis.
The roots of this tech are probably older than you think: primitive versions of facial recognition technology were first trialled in 1967, by the RAND corporation.
But commercial applications did not arrive until this century. Law enforcement began using facial recognition software in the 2000s, Microsoft and Apple added it to their devices in the 2010s.
For decades, we have been teaching computers how to recognise human faces.
FaceTracker is an online facial recognition tool, augmented by Artificial Intelligence.
In 2012, journalist and researcher Greg Borenstein conducted an experiment to see if the program would show signs of Facial Pareidolia. He ran images from the Flickr group ‘Hello Little Fella!’, which collects images of the phenomenon, through the program, to see how the system would interpret them.
And in some cases, FaceTracker responded in a very recognisable way: interpreting a random object, as a face. The false positive of Facial Pareidolia, now found in machine intelligence.
Analysis of this result was divided.
Some commentators viewed it as unsurprising. Given the fact that computers and computer software are made by people, is it that unusual they share some of our quirks?
Writing in ‘The Atlantic’, technology writer Rebecca J. Rosen saw it as discrediting the evolutionary origins of Facial Pareidolia:
‘Maybe the reason a computer “sees” a face is very simple: Things around us do sometimes actually have the shapes that constitute a face.
How can we say this is pareidolia, a strange phenomenon that is supposedly the byproduct of millions of years of evolution, and not just the basic truth that sometimes shapes do look like things they are not?’
– Rebecca J. Rosen
Research into the strange world of pareidolia, in humans and technology, continues.