Seeing faces in anything

Seeing faces in everything. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

All of us are prone towards seeing what we want to see and drawing conclusions that fit our pre-existing biases.

KNOWLEDGE @ KRISTIANIA: The Brain

Have you ever looked up at a cloud and thought: “That looks like a sheep”? While this occurrence is very common, the term for it is less so: Pareidolia. This involves seeing a familiar configuration of patterns in random visual or auditory stimuli.

It occurs because humans are expert pattern recognizers and our brain is constantly trying to make sense of all the information it is processing. Therefore, the brain’s perceptual system prefers to make things look like something rather than nothing.

Face recognition system

Most commonly, pareidolia makes us see faces. Like an oracle looking at tea leaves, the stain on a coffee cup may look like a familiar face, be it a personal friend or a religious figure. This occurs because we have a specific system in the brain that is exclusively for processing faces.

The face recognition system allows us to recognize our friends and family, as well as familiar people, from different angles. As a result, this system biases us towards finding faces in random noise.

Fallacies of our perceptions

Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, which is the mistaken recognition of patterns and meaning. These terms are reminders of the fallacy of our perceptions. Just because something makes sense or there seems to be a pattern, does not mean that there is one.

Lottery outcomes are random, not predictable by birthday numbers. The same mistaken perception of patterns can also occur in business models: random data of sales may grant an illusory pattern, which could lead to the establishment of a false business model.

One study by renowned behavioural economist Amos Tversky, showed that 87% of participants found patterns in random data that actually had zero correlations. Faces are no different: one study found that 1/3 of participants will “find” a face in random static noise, despite no face being present.

Seeing patterns that are not there

Pareidolia is the recognition of familiar patterns in any random stimuli, not just clouds or rocks. It helps explain why we conclude that random noises in the night might be a talking ghost, or why playing a song backwards might “reveal” hidden lyrics.

These are occurrences that are random, but we attempt to map a pattern for them to avoid feeling uncertain. In short, the phenomenon of pareidolia makes it easier for us to understand the world around us, but unfortunately it also makes us vulnerable towards seeing patterns that are simply not there.

We see what we want to see

An interesting case of applied pareidolia concerns the viewing of art. When looking at art, we often see ambiguous imagery. Sometimes this is intended, and the artist may have wanted the spectator to decide themselves what to see. This is evident in works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, where the interpretation of his art is largely dependent on what we want to see.

In other instances, the style of the artist may allow for ambiguity, which could lead to wrongful conclusions. The implication is that whenever we look at art, we see what we want to see: random colours and brushstrokes can look like a face or an animal. Importantly, however, this does not mean that the artist meant for us to find hidden figures in art. After all, we cannot see into the artist’s mind and determine what their intention was.

This bias towards making sense of ambiguity is not unique to art. In one of our experiments, we found that decision biases exist to an equal degree in art historians, psychologists, biologists and journalists. Being more scientifically trained does not necessarily make us less susceptible towards drawing erroneous conclusions. All of us are prone towards seeing what we want to see and drawing conclusions that fit our pre-existing biases.

Product of our brain

In summary, the term “pareidolia” (and more broadly, “apophenia”) may not be particularly known, but these phenomena are extremely common. Seeing animals in clouds, faces in art, or patterns in sales data, is all the product of our brain making familiar configurations of anything we experience.

While this does mean that we see non-existing patterns, it also means that our brain is doing everything it can to make our perceptions easier. Just remember: that sheep in the cloud isn’t really there… it just looks like it’s there.

References:

  • Wilner, R. (in revision). Pareidolia and the Pitfalls of Subjective Interpretation of Ambiguous Images in Art History. Leonardo
  • Sjoberg, E.A., Engelsen, E., Nilsson, E., Sanden, S., & Wilner, R. (2018). Confirmation bias in psychology in art. Paper presented at Psychology & Art Conference, Dubrovnik.

This popular article presents ongoing research from the Cognition and Art Research Group at Kristiania University College.

This article is first published in Kunnskap Kristiania 2020/2021. Kunnskap Kristiania is a science Communication Magazine published by Kristiania University College.

Text: Espen Sjøberg, School of Health Sciences at Kristiania University College and Master of Arts Raquel Wilner, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Photo: Seeing faces in everything, even on buildings. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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