The Actual Reasons Why We See Faces In Everyday Objects

From the fronts of cars to weirdly human knots on trees, people see faces in the strangest places. But have you ever wondered why we see faces everywhere? It turns out there's a name for that phenomenon: pareidolia, which describes humanity's ability to identify discernible images in places where there aren't any.

In attempting to understand pareidolia, researchers have proposed several scientific and behavioral explanations. Many things impact people's ability to see faces in random objects. Though processes in our brains make it possible for people to anthropomorphize objects, human socialization and even individual belief systems also have an impact.

Pariedolia proves yet again that the human mind is full of surprises.

  • Your Brain Is Trying To Make Sense Of The Signals Sent From Your Eyes

    Your Brain Is Trying To Make Sense Of The Signals Sent From Your Eyes
    Photo: RuthEKaiser / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Turning an image into a recognizable object - in this case, a face - is part of a complex biological process in the brain.

    When humans see something, their eyes gather information and send it to the brain for processing. This is a "complicated" process, since it isn't a direct transfer. If a brain picks up what it thinks are eyes, nose, and a mouth in an object, neurological activity happens in the brain's fusiform region, the same lobe that recognizes faces. At this point, brains may recognize certain aspects of an image, and these "top-down signals" from the brain shape what an individual ultimately sees.

  • Your Brain Needs Only The Sparest Of Details

    When people see faces in objects, it's really just their brain projecting what it thinks it's seeing onto the object. The brain can thus identify a face based on minimal details. 

    In the case of pareidolia, the human brain may pick up on certain image patterns - two circles for eyes, for example - and then fill in the rest of the image to see a face. The human brain thus acts like facial recognition software. In other words, brains see what they want to see, based on sketchy details.

  • We Track Their Gaze Even Though They Don't Actually Have Eyes

    Humans don't just glimpse a face in an object - the face usually has a gaze, too. As researcher Colin Palmer explained, our brain may actually shift the direction of the image's gaze:

    If you are repeatedly shown pictures of faces that are looking towards your left, for example, your perception will actually change over time so that the faces will appear to be looking more rightwards than they really are. There is evidence that this reflects a kind of habituation process in the brain, where cells involved in detecting gaze direction change their sensitivity when we are repeatedly exposed to faces with a particular direction of gaze.

    In other words, the direction of the gaze that humans perceive isn't stable. Indeed, researchers have also found that humans actually "track the gaze of phantom faces," as if the face is looking back at them.

  • Faces Are So Familiar To Us That The Brain Wants To Make Everything A Face

    Faces Are So Familiar To Us That The Brain Wants To Make Everything A Face
    Photo: Aleph79 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Why do humans see so many faces in inanimate objects? Though there isn't a definitive answer, scientists have put forward explanations for the phenomenon.

    Researcher Kang Lee surmised that it may have to do with the fact that people are generally surrounded by faces. As Lee explained to the BBC, "Starting from childhood, [faces] are the most common stimuli that we encounter in everyday life."

    There's a social and emotional component to seeing faces everywhere, as well. Since humans are social beings, we project humanity onto objects.

  • Seeing Faces That Weren't Actually There Could Have Helped Human Survival

    Seeing Faces That Weren't Actually There Could Have Helped Human Survival
    Photo: Dylanpack / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Scientists have attempted to understand what role facial recognition has played in human development. After all, if our brains are wired to recognize faces, it must serve some kind of purpose, right?

    Researcher Colin Palmer proposes one way that facial recognition may have helped early humans. He hypothesizes:

    Our brain has evolved to facilitate social interaction, and this shapes the way that we see the world around us. There is an evolutionary advantage to being really good or really 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. Another way of putting this is that it's better to have a system that's overly sensitive to detecting faces, than one that is not sensitive enough.

    Our over-ability to see faces in inanimate objects evidences how well-wired our brains have become.

  • Some People Are More Prone To Pareidolia Than Others

    Some people can spot faces in objects more readily than others. But why? What makes a person better equipped to make those neurological connections?

    For example, scientists say that women may be more prone to pareidolia than men. That might be partly due to women's socialization, as well as the make-up of their brains.

    Other factors can suggest an individual may be more prone to pareidolia. A person's mood may impact their ability to identify faces in objects, for instance, as well as "neurodevelopmental factors," such as hyperactivity or autism.